Non Specific Threat (Production Still) 2003 2007 is an ultrachrome colour digital print in landscape format by the Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty that features a young man depicted in profile view in the centre of the image. Partly in shadow and shown from his right side, the man (the actor Colin Stewart) has a shaved head and wears a blue denim jacket over a black shirt, and stares into the distance with a passive yet tight-lipped expression. At the left side of the composition is a dilapidated wall painted in white and yellow with a patch of red graffiti visible near to the bottom, while the background of the image features a grassy verge, some trees and an area of wasteland.
As the title’s reference to a ‘production still’ suggests, this image was made in 2003 while Doherty was creating the video work Non Specific Threat 2004, and was subsequently printed in 2007. Lasting nearly eight minutes, Non Specific Threat is a single channel colour video installation projected onto the wall of a darkened space in which the camera pans three hundred and sixty degrees around the man seen in this print as he stands inside a derelict building (the wall of which is shown in the production still). The video has an ambiguous and poetic voice-over monologue, delivered by the actor Kenneth Branagh, that seems to relate the thoughts of the man depicted, incorporating lines such as: ‘I am your invention’, ‘I am the embodiment of everything you despise’ and ‘I am your victim. You are my victim.’
Both this print and the video work investigate perceptions of violence and its perpetrators. The title Non Specific Threat indicates a general feeling of danger, an impression that is commonly associated in the media with young shaven-headed men such as the figure Doherty depicts, as well as with rundown surroundings such as those he occupies. In 2007 the artist explained that Non Specific Threat ‘is concerned with how we project our fears and anxieties onto an unknowable other’ and that ‘my use of the skinhead type had come from looking at how some Northern Irish paramilitaries have positioned themselves closely with racist and neo-Nazi groups’ (quoted in Dziewior and Mühling 2007, p.41).
Doherty’s statement suggests that Non Specific Threat can be viewed in the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, a period of political conflict which began in the late 1960s and is widely considered to have concluded in the late 1990s. The artist chose to feature Stewart in this work after seeing him appear as a violent character in Holy Cross, a 2003 television drama about sectarianism in north Belfast. In placing Stewart at the centre of Non Specific Threat, Doherty invites the viewer to question the preconceptions his appearance evokes and how media images shape notions of perpetrators and victims. Assessing Stewart as he appears in the video, the critic Maria Fusco has claimed, ‘we are invited to scrutinise his appearance for possible clues: largely impassive, scarred scalp, casually dressed, tensing and releasing the tendons in his jaw. Nothing is conclusive here. We can’t be sure’ (Fusco 2008, p.171).
Doherty’s work has frequently explored notions of perception and memory with regard to the Troubles and other instances of historical violence. Although the artist studied sculpture at Ulster Polytechnic in 1978–81, much of his work in the early 1980s consisted of black and white photographs of locations associated with violence overlaid with text. His first video, The Only Good One is a Dead One 1993, is a two-screen installation focusing on a car journey with a voice-over relating to fears and fantasies about terrorism and violence, while Ghost Story 2007 (Tate T12957) examines the relationship between landscape and memory in Derry, where Doherty was born in 1959 and where he continues to live and work.
This work was acquired by Tate as part of E3 4RR 2007, the first print portfolio produced by Matt’s Gallery in east London (the portfolio’s title refers to the gallery’s postcode). Curated by the gallery’s director Robin Klassnik, the portfolio consists of works by fifteen contemporary artists including Susan Hiller and Mike Nelson. The prints are presented in an A3 black buckram box and Tate’s copy of the portfolio is number ten in an edition of twenty-five.
Willie Doherty: Fuera de Posición / Out of Position, exhibition catalogue, Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City 2006, pp.38, 62–5.
Yilmaz Dziewior and Matthias Mühling (eds.), Willie Doherty: Anthology of Time-Based Works, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Osfildern 2007, pp.136–41.
Maria Fusco, ‘Willie Doherty’, Frieze, no.114, April 2008, p.171.
Supported by Christie’s.