Derry-born visual artist Willie Doherty on new border-centric retrospective WHERE

David Roy chats to acclaimed Derry-born visual artist Willie Doherty about his new borders-themed retrospective, Willie Doherty WHERE, which has just opened at the Ulster Museum in Belfast...

Visual artist Willie Doherty's new retrospective is open now at the Ulster Museum. Picture by Simon Graham

WITH the border having become a hot topic in Ireland once again in the era of Brexit, Willie Doherty WHERE has opened at just the right moment to encourage some much needed thoughtful reflection regarding the lines that divide us.

This newly opened retrospective at the Ulster Museum features a broad selection of the twice Turner Prize-nominated Derry-born visual artist's photographic and video-based work from the mid-1980s right up to the present day, all sharing the common theme of borders 'real and imagined'.

Having witnessed Bloody Sunday and grown up during the worst of the Troubles, the constant British security and surveillance presence in Derry city and along the Derry/Donegal border has informed much of Doherty's work, which saw him nominated for the Turner Prize in 1994 and again in 2003. More recently, the Donegal-based artist travelled to the USA in order to produce work focusing on the US/Mexico border during Donald Trump's presidency.

Remains (2013) by Willie Doherty

Curated in collaboration with Fondazione Modena Arti Visive in Modena, Italy, WHERE includes a brand new video installation titled Where/Dove ('Dove' being Italian for 'Where') commissioned for the retrospective which uses the British border in Ireland – currently in its centenary year – as a point of reference in understanding internationally divisive issues of nationalism, immigration and exclusion.

The retrospective was originally scheduled to open here in March following its debut at Fondazione Modena Arti Visive last year as Doherty's first major Italian retrospective. However, though the exhibition's Italian run and Belfast opening may have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the issues WHERE addresses remain annoyingly current.

Unapproved Road 2 (1995) by Willie Doherty

"Before the pandemic happened, one of the things that was pressing on most people's thoughts was the whole situation of borders, obviously because of Brexit and the kind of re-shaping of borders, but also migration – particularly in Italy," explains Doherty of the WHERE's genesis in late 2018 and early 2019.

"At one point, their right-wing government created a huge mess over migration and allowing people access to Italian ports and transit through Italy. So it did seem very current at the time.

"And obviously, living in Derry with the border with Donegal, I'd made work around that from the mid-80s on. So it seemed appropriate to loosely shape an exhibition around that theme."

During the Troubles in the mid-1980s, anyone taking photographs around the border would quickly have attracted attention from the RUC and British Army. It seems that the young Doherty was no exception, as he explains.

"I was very keen not to be recognised as a photographer or a journalist or even a tourist with a camera," he tells me of his early days in Derry.

"At that stage in the mid-80s through to the early-90s, I used to carry my camera around in a plastic bag and I used to just walk around the border roads rather than driving.

"So it was possible to be a little bit more discreet - but I was stopped a couple of times by the Army and the RUC. I remember once, in Derry, the Army took the film out of my camera because they thought I was getting too close to some kind of Army infrastructure or whatever.

"Mostly, I tried to keep a low profile. When I look back on that body of work, I think there's a degree of my own paranoia in it around feeling self-concious with a camera, but also the broader paranoia around the border at that time. I feel that kind of tension and reticence.

"I used to walk from the city of Derry out to the border along the Letterkenny Road and I always had the sense that there was some kind of covert surveillance happening along the border – so I always kind of felt that I was being watched.

"And the thing about having a camera is that you then have the opportunity to 'look back'. But then you're also participating in this process of using a camera to look in a particular kind of way at a place."

A scene from Where/Dove (2019) by Willie Doherty

Doherty received a rather warmer welcome from border security during his visits to the US/Mexico border in 2017, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers seemed amused by his interest in an area then newly politicised by xenophobic hyperbole surrounding Donald Trump and his crazed promise to "build the wall".

He says: "In some ways the dynamic of borders is obviously very specific to the place they exist, but there's also a shared experience among people who live in border situations and understand the emotional tug between one side and the other – there's an 'us and them' thing there, but also a connection as well.

"I initially spent a bit of time in El Paso, Texas, where the border fence runs right through the town, not unlike the peace walls in Belfast. Further out of the city, the border is demarcated by the Rio Grande river – again, not too dissimilar to the border here at home.

"I was stopped numerous times by the ICE guys, who were all Hispanic, which I found very odd even though it actually makes perfect sense in terms of the job they do.

At the Border, In-Between (Walk Softly, Breathe Gently) (2017) by Willie Doherty

"In one of the photographs I took [At the Border, In-Between (Walk Softly, Breathe Gently)], you can see a tyre. That was actually taken inside the border wall: when I told one of the ICE guys I was curious about how similar their border was to ours, he said 'you wanna see it?' and just opened the gate to let me walk through into this kind of no man's land.

"He told me that, every couple of days, they hook the tyre to the back of their jeep and drive up and down along the border. The tyre smoothes out the sand so that when they come back they can see the footprints of anyone who has come across to try and get over the wall.

"That very crude, simple device kind of reminded me of the way the border checkpoints here always had a kind of 'ad hoc' feel about them."

Of course, WHERE is not just interested in the physical aspect of borders and border 'policing'. As Doherty explains, we often build walls inside our own heads.

"I'm kind of interested in the broader mental, emotional and psychological aspects of living with a border and trying to navigate and negotiate borders, and also the way in which we kind of create borders for ourselves," he tells me.

"In this part of the world, our identities are very invested in 'place', so I think that aspect of the border is very interesting – how we 'identify' versus where we are, what side of the border we're on and what crossing the border means.

"There's the whole thing about how borders exist in our imagination. I've often heard people in Derry talking about how they 'breathe a sigh of relief' every time they drive across the border into Donegal: this idea that leaving the north behind means 'freedom' and that the further west you go into Ireland the more you escape the oppression of the north. I think that's still a very potent image in our heads.

"So hopefully, the exhibition un-picks a bit of that. It doesn't offer any solutions, but what I hope is that the individual works create a little bit of space where people can consider or reflect upon different aspects of how we co-exist with borders."

Willie Doherty WHERE runs until September 12 at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Admission to the Museum and exhibition is free but advance booking is required via

Willie Doherty with WHERE co-curator Anne Stewart of National Museums NI. Picture by Simon Graham

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