The Derry art trail
It’s a good time to visit the current UK City of Culture with the Turner Prize exhibition and Willie Doherty’s Unseen retrospective on show
There’s a fifth unacknowledged entrant for this year’s Turner Prize currently on show in Derry and that’s the location itself. Ebrington Square, with its former army parade ground, barracks and stables, has had a chequered history in a city which does chequered history better than anywhere else on the island. First designated for military use during the siege of Derry in 1689, the space has now firmly been demilitarised and repivoted during Derry’s tenure as the UK City of Culture with a temporary large-ish venue on the site for gigs and the space itself used for various cultural and other uses, other than the Turner show.
Walking around the space and taking in the view across from Waterside, you’re reminded that Derry is a handsome, striking city, especially when it’s not raining. Walking around the space, though, you’re also reminded that the history is in the bricks on this site, especially a public space named after a lord lieutenant and occupying a prime site overlooking the Foyle at the other end of the Peace Bridge a stroll from the walled city-centre.
The long-running annual art award is always good for headlines, controversey and fuming but, as with so much happening in the city this year, even it has to play second fiddle to this history lesson. Then again, after you spend time with the four artists inside the building, you’ll quickly note that there are a lot more optics and opinions to be extrapolated from the setting without than from the work on display within.
Of the four, Tino Sehgal’s This Is Exchange is perhaps the one which most successfully games the Turner WTF? factor in its favour. Inside his gallery, a number of amenable, friendly, smart interpreters engage in a chat with those who’ve walked in about economics and society. Given that people love to talk – and there’s a £2 bounty available as well on completion of the chat – the gallery is buzzing with noise and chatter. It’s also noticable that Seghal’s gallery is at the end of the Turner trail so it gives visitors a chance to perhaps articulate what they’ve been thinking up to now, hence its popularity.
At the other end of the building as you begin your walk around, there’s David Shrigley’s Life Model, a giant male nude who occasionally blinks and pees into a bucket. There are easels about the room for those who want to partake in the live drawing class with examples of what previous visitors painted dotted around the gallery walls. Everyone, according to Shrigley’s work, can be an artist regardless of training or talent so it’s the concept rather than the execution which is the real money shot.
Laure Prouvost’s brace of video installations come with a fascinating narrative about family and place based on her encounter with German artist Kurt Schwitters when he was living in England’s Lake District. For the films, Prouvost puts her own grandparents into Schwitters’ world and builds a compelling storyboard around art, teapots and a muddy tunnel to Africa. The pieces are put together with rapid, fast-cut editing and the viewer quickly finds themselves wrapped up in Prouvost’s weirdly compelling, challenging and rewarding ballad.
The weakest of the four works on display is Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s series of paintings. These “imaginary portraits” of figures in various poses are displayed in a low-lit room and therefore come across as gloomy, murky, slight and elliptical with little on the canvas or in the bundling to prompt further examination. Indeed, it’s probably unfair to even blame the lighting as there’s little in what Yiadom-Boakye has to say about the work in a video interview to pique your interest or curiosity.
You won’t be saying the same thing about Unseen, the fantastic and provocative retrospective of Willie Doherty’s work also currently on show at the City Factory Gallery. Again, it’s a case of location, location, location. Doherty’s work has long been about his photographic and video fascination with Northern Ireland and especially Derry’s “contested landscape”, to quote the exhibition notes, and especially the secrets and signs located within and without its urban walls and rural ditches. Photos of what look like ordinary, commonplace street corners turn out to hold their own horrific, tragic secrets from the decades of trouble and strife. You could try running away from them – as the terrified looking suited man running across the Craigavon bridge is seen doing in the Re-Run video – but that’s not really the true answer.
What’s interesting about another Doherty video installation Blackspot, which uses surveillance footage from CCTV cameras keeping constant watch on a bunch of random streets, is how our mind regards and reimagines what we’re seeing. For all we know, there might be absolutely nothing untoward happening in these streets, while those shadowy people walking into and out of the frame may be just going for their shopping. Yet how we’ve come to view and judge similar footage in films, TV shows, video games and even news reports means we’re constantly waiting for something, anything, to flare up and justify the constant surveillance.
One criticism put about of Doherty’s documentation of this constant jittery state of unease is that it’s not truly reflective of what’s happening in Northern Ireland today and lingers unduly on past themes and politics. Yet there’s no doubt that the land which has inspired the bulk of his work is not truly settled into some new cosy polticial reality and is still very much in flux. Indeed, there are some echoes of what Doherty is seeking to do here with his gritty urban noirs in the work of Antonio Olmos in documenting murder sites in London over a two year period. Similar experiences, different postcodes.