Willie Doherty

at the Renaissance Society, through April 18

By Jill Elaine Hughes

The tone and subject matter of Willie Doherty’s latest installation, True Nature, at the Renaissance Society came as something of a shock to me. Instead of the bombed-out buildings, rusty burned-out cars, and other remnants of Ireland’s guerrilla war for which this Northern Irish photographer and video artist is known, this video and audio installation focuses on a much older, more mysterious aspect of the Irish conflict–the part played by the myth of Ireland as an idyllic place worth fighting for. Surprisingly, much of Doherty’s search for that mythical homeland was conducted in Chicago. I was suspicious of his new approach at first; but while I entered the show expecting images of doom and destruction, I left with intriguing images both familiar and lofty.

Doherty wanted to capture how members of the Irish diaspora in Chicago conceive Ireland, from which most are now several generations removed: what does the notion of patria mean to Ireland and the world at large? And it seems that the Ireland that exists in the foggy memories of the descendants of Irish immigrants is both vastly different from the real Ireland, which Doherty also videotaped, and eerily the same. True Nature also shows that Chicago’s own Irish-American heritage is manifested in dramatic if metaphoric ways.

Doherty visited Chicago in August and November to gather material for the installation–interviews with Chicagoans of Irish descent and hours of videotape of everyday life here. The installation at first gives an impression of tranquillity: you enter a darkened room to find five floor-to-ceiling video screens set at odd angles and just barely touching one another; you hear the soft whispering of what seems 100 voices, none comprehensible but all reassuring. As your eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, you’re struck by one image that shows the vast power of Chicago’s Irish-American heritage: the underbelly of a jumbo jet as it takes off from O’Hare, the busy airport with an Irish name. The adjacent video takes us to mythic Ireland, the stuff of songs and legend: waves crash against a craggy Irish shore. The jet’s banshee scream prevents us from becoming lost in this scene’s romanticism, however.

In his five nine-minute videotapes and five nine-minute audiotapes, Doherty immerses the viewer in what he believes is the experience of all members of the Irish diaspora (most of whom have never been to Ireland): the feeling of “being two places at once, the dynamic between two countries–the myth, and the [real] landscape.” The Irish who left Ireland do feel nostalgic for, even burdened by, the “myth,” but Doherty also shows that myth is real: he has, after all, captured it on videotape.

What Doherty is trying to evoke in True Nature is not necessarily the Irish-American landscape but the Irish-American consciousness and how it’s manifested in a cluttered urban world. Surprised that I was not seeing the remains of car bombs and piles of barbed wire, I watched a sequence of all too familiar scenes–the high-rises and traffic of Lake Shore Drive, which Doherty taped from the backseat of a taxicab. Looking at a pink November sunset reflected on the McCormick Place facade, at boarded-up (now demolished) CHA high-rises, at luxurious skyscrapers, and at headlights reflected in a wind-stirred Lake Michigan, I wondered why I was seeing this piece of asphalt bordered by a lake and expensive real estate and not some of the more obvious Irish-American parts of Chicago, like the south-side Irish neighborhoods (shown here only briefly) or the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, complete with dyed river. But as we gaze at these everyday images, we begin to make out individual voices on the sound track, Irish-Americans trying to make sense of their distant but powerful heritage.

Once you grow accustomed to the darkness, the jumble of familiar yet unexpected images, and the bedlam of voices and stand in front of the central video projection–the Irish sea churning between O’Hare jets and Lake Shore Drive at dusk–you can make out a single voice, that of a middle-aged Chicago man. He talks about what it was like to grow up in the Irish neighborhoods of Chicago’s south side–the churches, the parades, the boys’ clubs, and the sense of security he got from his Irish-American fellows (“No matter what the circumstances, my [Irish] group was a safe place”). As we listen to him speak, the images on a nearby video screen dissolve from the white enamel interior of an Irish-American working-class kitchen to an idyllic green Irish hillside and back again: both images represent the tranquil security Chicago’s Irish-Americans wish for in their domestic lives despite the bustling urban environment. Chicago’s Irish-American population is not only fairly insular and intact but exceedingly powerful: consider the mayors Daley and the Irish social clubs, churches, and politics that helped shape Chicago in its infancy. But whether Chicagoans’ nostalgia for Ireland has had anything to do with the real Ireland has never been fully clear. Ultimately, however, Doherty seems to conclude that, whatever the connection between Irish myth and Irish reality, both exist.

Later images of daily life in Chicago are accompanied by a more intimate portrait of the Irish landscape. Between shots from inside the Blue Line train and the taxicab is gentle, quiet footage of a contemporary Irish prayer well, a lush, green place where the Irish faithful pray for cures and leave behind kitschy trinkets by way of thanks–plastic rosaries and crosses, small mass-produced Virgin Mary statues, flowers, even tiny film cases. The Irish prayer well, shot in extreme close-up, seems the “real” Ireland–poor but pious, natural but polluted, modern but steeped in medieval myth and faith. Clearly Doherty took great care in the selection and placement of this footage, for at this point in the installation we also see the “real” Irish-American experience: dangling from the rearview mirror of the taxicab is a plastic Celtic cross.

As we continue to watch and listen, such “coincidences” help us place many of the distinctive Chicago images we’re seeing in an Irish-American context–though they’re not necessarily Irish-American. For example, the CHA high-rises Doherty captures in the early part of True Nature seem to represent one facet of Irish-American history now often forgotten. In the mid- to late 1800s, when the Irish first emigrated to this country in large numbers, they were seen by middle- and upper-class Anglo-Protestants as racially inferior, on a par with another disenfranchised group, African-Americans. In order to combat their low social status, many Irish joined the proslavery Democratic Party in the late 19th century as a means of distancing themselves from marginalized blacks: though victims of racist oppression themselves, they amassed power as racist oppressors. Led by a powerful Irish-American mayor, present-day Chicagoans are demolishing public housing in hopes of forgetting the well-meaning but still racist ideals that erected it in the first place, distancing themselves from the race-related social problems that continue to divide this city. Irish-Americans, like many other American groups, would sometimes prefer to forget or demolish their heritage.

Two powerful closing elements, one visual and the other auditory, help show us that members of the Irish diaspora, like the current residents of Northern Ireland, are fighting a war–a war of identity. In True Nature, the Irish-American consciousness is itself a sort of littered war zone. First, Doherty offers one last look at the idyllic Ireland residing in the tender hearts of Irish-Americans: a dirt road wending its way up an emerald green Irish hillside to the horizon. Second, we hear among all the murmuring American voices one strong Irish one, that of an actor reading a text written by Doherty about someone who’s reached a difficult crossroads in his life, searching in vain for his “true” self. Just as those on the dirt path might labor toward the fantasy world of mythic Ireland, so Irish-Americans fight to return to an Irish-American ideal that never really existed. Yet what Doherty has uncovered in True Nature is that Chicagoans’ struggle to reach this ideal has itself created an “ideal” Ireland, which has been with us all along.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “True Nature” uncredited photo.