Thursday, 31 January 2008

Daylight Wraith

Last night the Willie Doherty retrospective moved from Matt’s austere art bunker to the louche cocoon that is The Prince Charles cinema. I’d already seen Ghost Story in the Irish pavilion at Venice during the summer and, as per my usual response to Doherty’s work, had mixed feelings about it, feelings resolved by this screening and the Q & A with Tim Marlow which followed it.

A steadicam drifts down an empty country path, swaying from side to side, unmoored from the familiar camera gambits of handheld tremble or hydraulic swoop and zoom. Occasional cars can be heard in the distance. Now and then the p.o.v. turns through 90 degrees and, while moving forward at the same slow pace, closely inspects the fine screen of young pine at the side of the path, beyond which a wide river can be glimpsed. These shots are particularly interesting, creating as they do an odd flattening of the scene, so that the two planes – trees and river – seem to occupy the same thin band of space.

This effect is something Doherty has exploited before in his 90s cibachromes, and is here, as previously, implicitly critical of the equation of depth with truth, surface with deception, suggesting instead a contiguity between two scenes, their moeboid co-implication rather than the simple supercession or superimposition of one by, or over, the other. As with Ghost Story as a whole, space is used as a metaphor for time, with the split between an occluded past and an immediate present collapsed into a single frieze. A point emphasized when the camera moves back to consider again the vanishing point of the path, where conventional perspective reasserts the familiar notion of a steady and predictable movement through homogeneous empty space towards a ready telos.

Here again Doherty plays on familiar themes, having often, in the past, used the unapproved road as a metaphor for temporal movement. Or rather the lack of such movement, for previously the roads depicted have been blocked by either security force bollards or torched and abandoned hijacked cars, the residues of paramilitary actions. The open path in this film, then, situates it as a post-conflict piece, with the road ahead representing, in the familiar robotic parlance, the ‘way forward’.

A voiceover begins, Stephen Rea’s lugubrious tones, familiar from umpteen balaclava dramas. The narrative initially follows cinematic convention by cleaving tightly to the scene before us: ‘I found myself on a deserted path. Through the trees on one side I could faintly make out a river in the distance’. Gradually sound diverges from image however, as the voice speaks first of a backward look to where spectral figures are huddled, and then describes a memory which, as Doherty confirmed in the Q and A, is a personal one of Bloody Sunday 36 years ago. 'The scene reminded me of the faces in a running crowd that I had once seen on a bright but cold January afternoon'.

Crucially the camera all the while stays fixed on the path. The voice continues: ‘The next day I walked over the waste ground which was now marked by deep tyre tracks and footprints, fixed in low relief and highlighted by a sharp hoar frost. I could find no other traces of the crowd'.

A radical disjunction occurs here between narrative description and the retinal image. A second scene forms in the mind's eye, an invisible supplement to the first. The narrator’s insistence on the traces of the event, the tyre tracks and footprints is in stark contrasts with the smooth tarmac that we see, so that the former become ever more vivid, eclipsing, for this viewer at least, the actual image onscreen. This antinomy between word and image – a kind of self-cancelling or negative ekphrasis – raises profound and troubling questions with great economy. One is forced to consider the relative ontological status of these two antagonistic descriptions. Where is the real here? Where is the virtual?

Yet to assert that Doherty is simply pitting the 'truth' of memory against the projected spectacle would be a mistake. For the viewer unavoidably supplies their own image, taking their cue from the narrator’s description it is true, but unavoidably filling it out with scenes culled from our thanato-culture's stock repertoire of atrocity.

The image in the mind's eye is thus more mediated than the one on screen. Surface and depth are again confounded. In one anecdote last night Doherty spoke of an experiment where he asked random people on a Derry Street if they had been there on Bloody Sunday and if so what they could remember of it. He then asked a group of people who had only seen the events on TV what they could remember. It must have come as no surprise to find that the accounts from each group agreed almost exactly.

The rest of Doherty’s film refers to memories not of events, but of media images: newspaper photographs, flickering television sets. These are often (though not always) set off against scenes that seem to have little relation to what is being described, so that the uncanny process of negative ekphrasis returns. While initially seeming to be yet another installment of what Badiou calls in Metapolitics the ‘unbearable, journalistic ethics of memory’, the film thus turns out instead to be a much more proposition. The effect produced in the spectator is a constant tension between two modes of experience, neither of which can be prioritized as more or less truthful than the other. Indeed it is in this unnerving formal tension, i think, that Doherty locates the truth of the act of witnessing, rather than in the substantive content of any given memory.

At one point, accompanied onscreen by the image at the top of this post, the narrator of Ghost Story speaks of the 'daylight wraith', a folk spectre that is 'usually a vision of someone who is in another place at the time of the appearance', and that manifests itself 'in a place where the living person could not possibly be'. And what else is this but a description of the hauntological Spaltung at the heart of the image itself?

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