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Incident is a colour photograph showing the remains of a burnt out car on the verge of a country road. It is one of a series of images of abandoned cars Doherty began making in the early 1990s. This photograph was produced in an edition of three; Tate’s copy is the second in the edition. The car in the image is no more than a shell: its windows and tires have been destroyed. It sits abandoned on the roadside with its right door slightly ajar. The bare metal frame of the driver’s seat is visible through the back window. The interior has otherwise been stripped by fire and looters. Resting on its chassis the car looks as if it is half under water. The image’s watery blue-tinged light exacerbates this impression. The road is a gently tapering strip of rich blue against the green and muddy landscape. Its rain-soaked surface gives the road a fleeting resemblance to a narrow river.
The photograph was taken in the outskirts of Derry, Northern Ireland, where the artist was born and continues to live and work. Derry’s identity as a city split by sectarian violence is echoed in its dual name; it is still widely referred to by its British colonial name, Londonderry. Lying on the border between Ulster and the Republic of Ireland the city has been the site of some of the worst of the Northern Irish ‘troubles’, most infamously Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972, when British soldiers opened fire on protest marchers. Doherty witnessed this incident as an adolescent. Subsequent reportage led him to question the way the media represent and interpret newsworthy events. He has said, ‘After Bloody Sunday, it became clear to me that what I had seen on TV and what I had read in the newspapers didn’t in fact bear any relationship to what I had seen happen myself. So it was an experience that politicised me to some extent about how what was happening around me was being managed’ (quoted in Joan Rothfuss, ‘Willie Doherty’, No Place (Like Home), p.42).
Incident conflates two images of Ireland: the lush green landscape familiar from tourist brochures and the aftermath of what may have been a terrorist attack. Doherty has described how the meaning of his photograph, and by extension any picture, is dependant upon pre-existing images and the fixed notions they illustrate. He has commented, ‘Some people see an image of a burned car and they want to believe that car was burned in some kind of terrorist incident ... people expect the photographs to be of an event or of an incident of some sort. But actually my photographs are of non-events or non-incidents’ (quoted in Rothfuss, pp.44-5). In other words, images are neutral; any meaning the viewer may ascribe to them is the result of a projection of his or her own prejudices and preconceptions. Doherty’s choice of materials reinforces this interest in representation; he often prints his photographs on highly glossy paper whose surface literally reflects the viewer.
Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle, Deepali Dewan, et.al, No Place (Like Home), exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1997, reproduced p.46 in colour.
Dan Cameron, Willie Doherty, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; Grey Art Gallery, New York and Matt’s Gallery, London, 1993, reproduced on cover in colour.
David Green, John Goto, Peter Seddon and Terry Atkinson, Circumstantial Evidence, exhibition catalogue, University of Brighton Gallery, 1996, reproduced p.20.