Bord Failte, Ireland’s tourism agency, works hard to project a romantic image to potential visitors. It’s been so successful that tourism has surpassed agriculture as the country’s leading industry. The comforts of Guinness stout, the bouncy charm of the folk music, and the hundred shades of green that make up the unspoiled landscape combine to form an imaginary place that shares very little with the everyday experience of the contemporary Irish.
But rather than dismissing these images as phony, Northern Ireland native Willie Doherty says, “There isn’t an authentic Ireland. Those ideals are just as legitimate as the ones I grew up with living in Derry.” True Nature, Doherty’s video installation at the Renaissance Society, explores American perceptions of Ireland, which he says are informed as much by family storytelling traditions and the movies as by the tourism industry.
Doherty visited Chicago last August and conducted about a dozen interviews with Americans of Irish descent, eventually selecting three of them to make up three-quarters of the sound track to True Nature. (The other quarter, describing the inner struggle that precedes a long journey, is read by an Irish actor.) One interviewee describes her grandmother, who changed her name from Bridget to Mary to hide her heritage. An artist talks about reading National Geographic and coming across a picture of an Irish child who resembled her brother. A union representative in his late 50s says the typical Irishman is unafraid to take risks.
The voices form a counterpoint to the video images, shot by Doherty in Ireland and Chicago, which are projected on five ten-foot-tall screens. Lush green scenery melts into views of Lake Shore Drive; an airplane flying overhead alternates with turbulent ocean waves.
True Nature addresses a phenomenon that used to perplex Doherty. About ten years ago, when he started exhibiting his work in this country, he noticed that Irish-Americans tended to show unmitigated enthusiasm for what were largely bleak, ominous images of their ancestral home. Doherty found that being Irish gave him an “inherent authenticity” in their eyes, a talisman that made them “suspend their critical faculties.”
“I didn’t have something I was trying to prove,” he says. “This was a way to answer questions I had.”
Just as he tolerates the mythmaking excesses of Bord Failte, Doherty accepts the ardor of Ireland enthusiasts, comparing it to his own misperceptions and preconceived notions about America. “As an Irish person coming to this country, you have a bizarre experience: it’s a new place, but you’ve seen it before in the movies.”
For Doherty, both America and Ireland are “places that exist solely in the imagination.” When he takes out his camera, he’s not looking for something new or different but rather for “images that are referential to other images” from the movies and TV. Whether shooting video or taking still pictures–the medium he’s best known for–he seeks out “landscapes that are about the negation of [the] authentic.”
Doherty naturally finds the Irish-American saga fascinating, and Chicago happened to be an ideal setting: thanks to a long history of immigration, Ireland and Chicago share a real and enduring bond, exemplified by the tradition of dying the Chicago River green on Saint Patrick’s Day. True nature, indeed.
True Nature is on exhibit at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis (773-702-8670), through April 18. Admission is free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos From “True Nature”; Doherty photo by Nathan Mandell.