Willie Doherty

Remote Control


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Not on display

Willie Doherty born 1959
Photograph, black and white, on paper mounted onto aluminium panel
Image: 1220 × 1830 mm
Purchased 2003


Remote Control is a black and white photograph of a dead end road behind an unmanned police station in Rosemount, Derry, Northern Ireland. The road is enclosed by high walls made of reinforced corrugated metal and rough stone. On the right an additional layer of wire fencing extends almost as high as a telegraph pole. The street is bleak and empty of people; rainwater fills potholes and shards of glass and other rubbish litter the ground. Weeds grow between concrete slabs reinforcing the fencing. The high walls accentuate the image’s narrow, claustrophobic single-point perspective. Towards the bottom of the photograph the words ‘remote control’ are superimposed on the surface of the image in white capital letters. The work was produced in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is the first in the edition.

Doherty was born in Derry, where he 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 Northern Ireland and the Republic, 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).

Doherty became aware at a young age of the way words and images can be manipulated to suit political and ideological agendas. The image of a dead end road can be seen as a metaphor for the political impasse in Northern Ireland, particularly during the fraught period in the early 1990s prior to the Irish Republican Army and British loyalist paramilitary ceasefires that paved the way for the ongoing peace process in the region.

The phrase ‘remote control’ refers to the fact that, as part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is governed from London. The prison-like fence of the police station guards a bastion of British rule in the province. The words also suggest surveillance in the everyday sense of closed-circuit television systems as well as the more threatening techniques employed by terrorist organisations to intimidate their enemies. On a more prosaic level, a ‘remote control’ is a device used to switch between television stations; Doherty’s title implicates the media in the construction of language and images which perpetuate antagonistic ideologies.

Doherty’s juxtaposition of image and text continues the tradition of politically motivated conceptual photography pioneered in the 1970s by artists such as Victor Burgin (born 1941; see Lei-feng, 1973-4, Tate P07231) and Hans Haacke (born 1936; see A Breed Apart, 1978, Tate T05206). Like these artists, Doherty remains interested in the way visual and textual language is constructed and mediated. Critic Paul O’Brien has described this tendency, saying, ‘Doherty’s work exists in that zone where attempts to isolate the reality of what happened come up against questions concerning the reliability of language and imagery to represent the real’ (O’Brien).

Further reading:
Dan Cameron, Willie Doherty, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin; Grey Art Gallery, New York and Matt’s Gallery, London 1993, reproduced p.29.
Paul O’Brien, ‘Willie Doherty: language, imagery and the real’, Circa, no.104, Summer 2003, www.recirca.com/backissues/c104/doherty.shtml.
Richard Flood, Douglas Fogle, Deepali Dewan and others, No Place (Like Home), exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1997.

Rachel Taylor
June 2004

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