Ghost Story 2007 is a fifteen-minute single channel colour video projection with a voiceover that centres on a journey around Derry in Northern Ireland. The main location depicted in the video is a long empty pathway – flanked by woods on either side and a barbed-wire fence on the right – down which the camera slowly travels. At other times the camera moves through a derelict area with lock-up garages, a dark urban underpass and a patch of open wasteland on which a silver car is parked with a man sitting inside it. Interspersed with the footage of these landscapes, which are mostly seen in a murky blue-grey twilight with some brief night-time sequences, are occasional close-ups of eyes (both male and female) that gaze past the camera. Written by the creator of Ghost Story, the Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty, and delivered by the actor Stephen Rea in a dispassionate manner filled with long pauses, the voiceover details personal memories, often concerning murder and violence, that seem to be connected with the landscapes depicted in the video (text reproduced in Fruitmarket Gallery 2009, unpaginated). For instance, the narrator suggests that the trees contain ‘shadow-like figures’ whose terrified faces remind him of a crowd of people he once saw fleeing for safety. This video is shown on a loop in a dark, enclosed space, projected directly onto and completely filling a white wall that is between four and six metres wide, with two speakers playing the voiceover. Tate’s copy of Ghost Story is the artist’s proof, which was produced alongside an edition of three.
The footage for Ghost Story was shot with a high definition digital camera in Derry – where Doherty was born in 1959 and where he continues to live and work – in December 2006, and its main location is a disused railway line that has been converted into a footpath. The work was edited by Doherty in a studio in Belfast in April 2007.
As the title Ghost Story implies, Doherty’s video explores the idea of the past haunting the present. Both the movements of the camera, which may reflect the narrator’s perspective but which are so steady that they do not appear attached to a human body, and the words of the voiceover, which refer to ‘restless creatures whose intentions are often beyond our comprehension’ and figures who ‘inhabit a world somewhere between here and the next’, create a strong sense that spectral forces are at work in the video. The evocation of ghosts in the work can be related to the history of Northern Ireland, especially the violence associated with the Troubles, a period of political conflict that began in the late 1960s and is widely considered to have concluded in the late 1990s. Ghost Story suggests that the landscapes in the video may have once functioned as a stage for traumatic acts, even if little physical evidence of suffering is visible. As the curator Fiona Bradley has written, ‘There is a sense in the film that it is the ground as much as the man who is walking on it that remembers the bloodshed’ (Fiona Bradley, ‘Uncommon Ground’, in Fruitmarket Gallery 2009, p.6).
In exploring the legacy of the Troubles, Ghost Story can be compared with works such as Paul Graham’s photographic series Troubled Land 1984–6 (see Tate P79338– P79343), which depicts urban and rural landscapes subtly but discernibly shaped by the conflict. Doherty’s use of lengthy tracking shots in his video may also be aligned with the techniques employed by the British director Alan Clarke in Elephant (1989), a film that explores the violence of the Troubles through uninterrupted takes that culminate in brutal and unexplained murders.
Although Doherty studied sculpture at Ulster Polytechnic in 1978–81, much of his work in the early 1980s consisted of black and white photographs overlaid with text. His first video work, The Only Good One is a Dead One 1993, is a two-screen installation focusing on a car journey that includes a voiceover relating the speaker’s thoughts, fears and fantasies about violence. In 2007, discussing his frequent use of spoken and written texts in his work, Doherty explained:
In the way that my images often reference cinematic or documentary genres, the texts are often appropriated from or reference fictional or journalistic sources. In that way my approach to writing the texts is more pragmatic than poetic. I think of the texts as fragments in the way that the videos can be seen as fragments, short scenes from a much longer movie.
(Quoted in Dziewior and Mühling 2007, p.42.)
Ghost Story was first shown in 2007 at the fifty-second Venice Biennale, where Doherty represented Northern Ireland.
Yilmaz Dziewior and Matthias Mühling (eds.), Willie Doherty: Anthology of Time-Based Works, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Osfildern 2007, pp.160–5.
Willie Doherty: Buried, exhibition catalogue, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 2009.
Charles Wylie, Willie Doherty: Requisite Distance, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 2009, pp.38–91.
Supported by Christie’s.