Willie Doherty
Tell Me What You Want 1996

Artwork details

Willie Doherty born 1959
Tell Me What You Want
Date 1996
Medium Video, 2 monitors, colour and sound (stereo)
Acquisition Presented by the Patrons of New Art (Special Purchase Fund) through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1999
Not on display


Tell Me What You Want is a video installation comprising two 2.29 inch television monitors each showing different footage. One of the screens displays a daytime shot of a grassy roadside verge interspersed with sequences depicting a man silhouetted in front of a white wall, while the other shows a night-time shot of a different roadside area that is intermingled with footage of a woman, who is positioned and lit identically to the man in the other video. Both figures speak ambiguously, alluding to various events without providing a coherent narrative, although they sometimes seem to evoke illicit or dangerous circumstances and both mention roadside scenes. The figures narrate various short snippets in a sequence that repeats several times during each video, with some monologues being relayed by both speakers. The roadside sequences comprise single shots, and like the footage featuring the man and woman, they are repeated many times during each video. They feature ambient noise, including sounds of passing cars, construction work (in the daytime sequence) and a barking dog (in the night-time scene) and both are tightly cropped and shot from a low angle in a way that largely omits the surrounding area. The videos are both looped and last just over thirty-one minutes, although they differ slightly in length and are unsynchronised, so that they combine in different ways during the course of the installation.

This work was made by the Northern Irish artist Willie Doherty in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 2006. It was shot using the analogue Hi-Band 8 by 2 format and transferred onto Hi-Band U-matic videotape in the same year. Tate’s exhibition copy is on DVD, as approved by Doherty in 2004. The work is usually exhibited in a separate, enclosed space measuring between three and four metres square, and the monitors are shown in opposite corners of this room, facing towards one another. However, they can also be exhibited in a larger space, placed on either side of one of the room’s corners at a distance of 2.2 m from it and facing in towards one another. In all installations, the monitors must be attached to the walls using top-mounted brackets and their bottom edges should be fixed at a distance of 1.4 m from the floor (see Matt’s Gallery 1997, p.39).

Like the monologues in the videos, the title of this work remains ambiguous. It could be interpreted as a request made to the individuals speaking in the videos, asking them either to talk about any subject or in any manner that they wish, or to indicate something they desire. Doherty has frequently worked with ambiguous images and texts since the late 1980s and critics have often seen this as a means of encouraging reflection on media representations, especially depictions of the Troubles – a period of conflict concerning the geopolitical status of Northern Ireland that began in the late 1960s and is widely considered to have concluded in the late 1990s. For example, the critic Jeffrey Kastner has observed that Doherty draws on tropes including ‘surveillance videos, news-camera shots and anonymous interview segments’, but added that ‘in marked opposition to the conventional approach of media imagery, the artist’s works never pretend to achieve resolution – in fact, they actively thwart it at every turn’ (Jeffrey Kastner, ‘Nothing Personal’, in Matt’s Gallery 1997, pp.37, 42).

This sense of an unclear meaning is heightened in Tell Me What You Want by the decontextualised roadside shots. Images of roadsides are common in Doherty’s photographs and videos (see, for instance, Minor Incident I 1994 and Ghost Story 2007, Tate T12957) and Kastner has argued that these liminal locations add to the ambiguously evocative nature of his works since they ‘allude to, but never resolve into pictures of places and events’ (Kastner 1997, p.37). In 2009 Doherty acknowledged that he has often depicted areas that seem ‘a little bit more difficult to identify’, but also locations that people may feel ‘cautious’ about:

Would you want to be there at night on your own, that kind of thing ... I deliberately choose those places because of the kinds of stories associated with them and how they kind of fold over into the ways we might see our expectations and fears played out.
(Doherty in Fionna Barber, ‘Ghost Stories: An Interview with Willie Doherty’, Visual Culture in Britain, vol.10, no.2, 24 August 2009, p.194.)

Doherty has often produced video installations with multiple screens (see, for instance, Re-Run 2002, Tate T11749). Discussing this practice in 2006, he stated: ‘I try to extend the viewing experience beyond the familiar and passive experience of sitting in a cinema or watching television, when one is not asked to move around the image ... I am interested in having all of these dynamics happening within the space, so that the viewing experience is not a passive one.’ (Willie Doherty and Príamo Lozada, ‘Interview Between Willie Doherty and Príamo Lozada’, in Willie Doherty: Out Of Position, exhibition catalogue, Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City 2006, p.69.)

Further reading
Willie Doherty: Same Old Story, exhibition catalogue, Matt’s Gallery, London 1997, pp.37–42, reproduced pp.38–41.
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, Willie Doherty: False Memory, London 2002, pp.52–3, reproduced pp.52–3, 158.
Willie Doherty, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Hamburg 2007, pp.20–1, 78, 80, reproduced pp.79, 81.

David Hodge
June 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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