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Stunning Troubles: Willie Doherty’s DMA Show Makes Irish History Come Alive

For the first time, a Willie Doherty exhibit unites his film and photographs that revisit memories of the Troubles.
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LESS TRAVELED: Doherty’s Border Road (1994). photography courtesy of the Dallas Museum of Art

At the end of March, the new urbanist (and highly mannered gesturist) Andres Duany lectured on sustainable neighborhoods at SMU. The crowd glowed when Duany praised Dallas’ upbeat spirit in the face of a gloomy economy. He said Dallas might well be “the place that looks forward to the future.” The place that looks forward to the future—not just toward it, but forward to it. As in, with enjoyment.

Earlier this year, I talked about Dallas’ contemporary art galleries and the way they emblematize the city. By the looks of the Dallas Museum of Art’s contemporary art collection, the city’s major art institution looks forward to the future with a joyful abandon of its own.

For 10 years, the DMA and amfAR have jointly hosted Two by Two for AIDS and Art, a benefit that has raised more than $21 million in funding for the DMA’s contemporary art acquisitions. Thanks to this venture and the help of The Rachofsky Collection, the DMA recently acquired three new pieces: Marlene Dumas’ For Whom the Bell Tolls (2008), Jim Hodges’ and still this (2005-2008), and Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation (1962-1964). These works are now on exhibit at the DMA’s “Private Universes,” 80 works of contemporary art drawn almost exclusively from Dallas collections.

When Charles Wylie, the DMA’s Lupe Murchison Curator of Contemporary Art, joined the museum in 1996, little of this funding and acquiring had taken off. Since then, contemporary art holdings “have launched the DMA into a completely different category,” Wylie says. Most notably, in 2005 the DMA made international art news when Marguerite and Robert Hoffman, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky, and Deedie and Rusty Rose willed their present and future collections to the museum. The windfall merited the telling of its own story in the DMA’s 2007 exhibit “Fast Forward.”

But what recently drew my eye to the DMA was its exhibit featuring the work of a Northern Irish visual artist, “Willie Doherty: Requisite Distance.” The New York Times’ Benjamin Genocchio even listed it as an important feature in the summer’s upcoming nationwide exhibits. As a doctoral student in Irish lit, I was rabid for more news of the show. So on a warm day in April I met with Wylie to discuss the exhibit he is curating.

In tandem with Doherty’s Ghost Story (2007), a 15-minute art film (narrated by the mournful-sounding Stephen Rea) that the DMA acquired with amFAR’s money, Wylie has assembled a retrospective of 11 of Doherty’s photographs from 1993 to 1999 that “revisit memory,” as Wylie puts it. Together, the earlier photographs and more recent film document the traces of terror that still haunt the landscape of Northern Ireland. Of wider import to the art world, Wylie says, Doherty was central in the 1990s to getting video installation recognized as a medium on par with any other art medium.

Liam Kelly, a professor of Irish visual art at the University of Ulster, told me that Doherty’s “earlier, highly local problematic work has given way to a universal, cultural legacy.” The recent upsurge of violence in Ulster is unlikely to alter Doherty’s evolution. Kelly sees March’s violence—two soldiers and one policeman were killed by Republican terrorists in Northern Ireland—as a short flare-up, more the voicing of “disaffection on behalf of some Republicans” than a wider statement.

Doherty’s photographs at the DMA hint at the North’s old tensions. A burnt car, sullied road blocks, border fences, and empty roads give the lie to other pastoral photographs where “no visible signs” (as one photo is titled) of the conflict appear. A bruised palette of greens, blues, and blacks makes up Doherty’s color scheme. Rather than hang at eye level, his photos are placed about 16 inches off the floor. Wylie says the knee-high vista allows us to “physically feel like we might enter the picture,” but at any suggestion of direct confrontation, both in the film and the photos, the camera suddenly angles away. Doherty’s roads have the otherworldly quality of Lewis Carroll’s rabbit holes.

Unlike in Doherty’s native Derry, Dallas’ heat drives out the damp cold that seems to linger around the edges of Doherty’s forlorn pastures and roads. Still, we have our own bleak memories—the Kennedy assassination primarily—to contend with. That was a black enough moment to make Dallas feel like a ghost town. From that, the city learned to persevere and even look “forward to the future.”

Through Wylie’s curatorial direction and Doherty’s rendering of a collective memory, “Requisite Distance” marries a small nation’s anxieties to a global contemplation about the dark past and the unresolved future. When universal fear runs wild, it’s worth remembering that communal hope can vanquish violence and transcend despair.  

Other events: “Private Universes,” May 24-Aug 2; gallery talk, June 24, 3 p.m., Charles Wylie discusses the work of Willie Doherty; performances in the galleries, Saturdays at 2 p.m., readings inspired by “Willie Doherty: Requisite Distance.” dallasmuseumofart.org.