Commissioned on the centenary of the Easter Rising as part of ‘Ireland 2016’, Willie Doherty’s Loose Ends takes as its subject dual visions of a city and a countryside marked by a violent history. The exhibited work comprises of a two-screen video installation and two accompanying photographic diptychs. Each juxtapose a scene from Donegal’s Gola Island with another from the Moore Street area of Dublin city.
Some context for the choices of location: Gola Island was home to two fishermen – Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan – who along with Erskine Childers, Roger Casement and co. brought 1,500 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition aboard Childers’ boat Asgard, from Hamburg to Howth, in the summer of 1914. The weapons would go on to be used in the Rising of 1916. Dublin’s Moore Street however – and specifically Doherty focuses on Moore Lane and Henry Place, to its rear – is the site of the retreat and eventual surrender of the leaders of the Rising, after the shelling of the GPO by occupying British forces in May of 1916.
Doherty’s gaze is at once a plaintive and reflective one. The video installation, comprised of two static, side-by-side shots that slowly zoom in or out, is accompanied by a sombre voiceover that enacts a parallel, ostensibly non-diegetic narrative to the images depicted. Doherty’s speech draws on minor details from history, snatched descriptions of rural life and first-hand reportage of the torching of the Moore Street buildings that served as the 1916 rebel combatants’ last stand. It is the voice of the past. Nevertheless, the focus of his words remains only implicitly political in nature, with narration confined to the subjective and fragmentary. Their historical context is provided not by the images themselves so much as the viewer’s reflections upon them, landscapes whose significance is a matter of projection that is by its nature marked by incompleteness.
At first glance, Doherty’s images are largely sedate. Abandoned island cottages left to ruin, a hole left in a city wall that may used to have been a boot-scraper, a missing brick or perhaps simply drainage, a gentle sea lapping against dark rocks beneath: they are nonetheless, we are certain, sites of historical significance, in a history, moreover, that is being forgotten. This forgetting inscribes itself on the world in a physical sense, too. An old window filled in with incongruous, grey concrete blocks, a charred planning notice melted and faded into illegibility: these images account for two of the more on-the-nose inclusions in the project, but their symbolism is nonetheless vital. They juxtapose with an island landscape that is home to only a handful of people in 2016. Take Doherty’s image of a vast, rusty cliff that leans queasily, almost dragged into the sea, in Loose Ends V. Its face is pockmarked black with organic erosion, a jagged rhyme of Dublin’s old, burnt bricks. And though predominantly still, Doherty’s shots are marked by a flickering, the almost subliminal, felt movement of film. The shuddering in the wind of a tiny plant on a city footpath and the distant roiling of untamed island shrubbery speak in an immediate way to the passage of time.
About mid-way through the video installation occurs an echo of the cottage wall depicted in Loose Ends VI, the first of the two dipytchs exhibited. The empty window of the abandoned and roofless building acts as a makeshift frame for the windswept foliage in the far distance. As Doherty’s camera zooms slowly in, we get the sense of it framing something that is long since lost. In what is perhaps the exhibition’s most significant image, focus pulls within the shot to blur the impromptu frame before it disappears completely, leaving only hills and fields overhung by a turbid sky. It speaks to the inexorable movement of time, and the inevitability of the losses inherent to that same passage. “In the end, a fine dust is all that’s left,” speaks Doherty. The languid speed and steadiness with which the shift in focus is accomplished evokes the masterful control of Antonioni, and the window-frame through which the performance occurs his seminal penultimate shot of 1975’s The Passenger.
But unlike in Antonioni, Doherty’s scenes are absent of the human figure entirely. In fact, this absence, as well as the absence of history – as we are given to understand history in denotative terms per se – from the image, nonetheless can structure interpretation of the depicted material. At one point, Doherty’s voiceover seems to relay a first-hand account of a person trapped with others in a burning building, tunneling their way out while they choke on fumes. It is claustrophobic and deeply affecting. But it is also surely the story of the final hours in combat of the 1916 rebels, who tunneled from Number 5 to Number 16 on Moore Street before their surrender. Thus the seeping in of “a vapour from the past,” as Doherty puts it; “the hauntings that the older people spoke of” that terrify one of the voiceover’s human subjects in a biographical passage. For the efforts of those men and women, a century on, are beyond the reach of first-hand verbal history. And what have we left ourselves with?
Doherty’s dual-video installation, viewed from an angle – as is necessitated either by personal preference or perhaps by a busy spell in the gallery – shows two dialoguing images perfectly aligned. However, viewed head-on, and from dead centre, the images take on a different quality, one which speaks profoundly to forgetting, to the ruins, and to the shattered dialectic of history at the heart of the project. In a simple matter of perception, seen in this way, the images’ central edges loom larger in the field of vision than those further towards the outer walls of the space. Viewed thus, the subjects of our gaze appear to be facing ever so slightly apart, in a widening V that contains ever more: ever more tragedy, ever more hope, every more to be forgotten and disappear. So, one hundred years later, two lines of history diverge from one another, moving away from a point that grows ever distant from our gaze.
Willie Doherty’s Loose Ends is exhibited at the Kerlin Gallery on Ann’s Lane off South Anne Street, Dublin 2, until Wednesday 19th October.
Words: Oisín Murphy Hall