Art review: Willie Doherty, Buried
YOU ARE looking at a long, straight path, damp and fringed by dense woodland under an overcast sky. There is a barbed wire fence flattened by wind or perhaps human activity. In the background a distant hum, the occasional bit of birdsong. At the foot of the path there is an indeterminate shadow. A gate? A bend in the road? A figure?
A man begins to talk. We never see his face, but his voice is troubled, perhaps even haunted. As the camera rolls relentlessly forward down a path that never seems to end, he begins to tell of terrible unnamed events he has witnessed, "the faces in a running crowd that I had once seen on a bright but cold January afternoon". He returns the following day but the only traces are tyre tracks and footprints. Later, a new building has covered the place where it happened. "I wondered about what had happened to the pain and terror that had taken place there. Had it been absorbed or filtered into the ground, or was it possible for others to sense it as I did?"
This is Ghost Story, the extraordinary film by Willie Doherty first shown in 2007 at the Venice Biennale. He was 12 years old when, from the window of his family home in Derry, he witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday. If the eminent artist, twice nominated for the Turner Prize, has visited this moment before, then Ghost Story takes the act of remembering and retelling to a new level.
It is an artist's film but made to cinema standards with director of photography Seamus McGarvey (Atonement) and actor Stephen Rea (The Crying Game). It forms the heart of a show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, where despite the long shadow of historical events, much is left unspoken. Buried is a show about landscape and memory, about repression and resurgence and the difficulties inherent in representing contested and bitterly painful events in a post-conflict situation. It steps away from the simple accretion of historical events or factual detail, instead pursuing oblique and poetic routes toward a truth, not of the grand sweep of history but the intimate and painful price it exacts on the individual psyche.
In Ghost Story the unnamed narrator never names the events he has witnessed. He moves from dispassionate testimony to images of gothic fantasy, where even the ground beneath his feet is unstable, "as if the surface of the road was no longer thick enough to conceal the contents of the tomb that lay beneath the whole city".
We see nothing but landscapes, but we accept that they are loaded with memory, that they contain barely visible traces of trauma. The man seems to be haunted by a malevolent spirit but perhaps he is simply pursued by an unwanted human contact, who in one scene lurks in a shadowy urban underpass where all around dark bushes seems to crackle with an almost supernatural intensity.
Doherty's work is both universal and specific. The narrator in Ghost Story finds his mind drifting to other images of conflict we night recognise, to loosely delineated incidents of removals or disappearances or prisons. The events come to him through newspaper reports, through photographs. The images, though, are persistent – the past if repressed will always come back to haunt you.
If Ghost Story is Doherty's masterpiece then the rest of the show serves to illuminate the artist's unexpected shift into poetic register, from a career studious in its avoidance of the romantic and scrupulous in its vision. There is a sequence of silver gelatin prints showing the narrow and loaded streets of Belfast, some photographed now, some dating back 20 years. There is a series of forensic-style images that show the visible traces of conflict and the two-screen video work Re-Run that marked his move into video and was shown in his Turner Prize show in 2004.
Doherty's work has always suggested that photographs are not reliable and the crucial companion to Ghost Story is a newly commissioned film Buried, one of the most terrifying and ambiguous films you will ever see. The camera pans steadily through dense woodland, and we come across the remains of an encampment. There are embers burning on the campfire and some detritus on the ground. There is a rope, latex gloves, wire (or is it string?) tied to a tree. A grub emerges from a tree, some worms writhe in the foreground.
This may be some innocent stopover or the scene of far more complex and sinister events. But as we look through the criss-crossed branches and it seems we are witnesses to a dense web of horror, we must ask ourselves whether it is information or expectation that leads us to our conclusions.
In Seamus Deane's Derry-set novel, Reading In The Dark, the unnamed child narrator grows up in a household echoing with secrets, haunted by ghosts. The family home is simultaneously empty and bereft, yet "as cunning and articulate as a labyrinth, closely designed, with someone sobbing at the heart of it". The boy seeks solace in Celtic history and myth, but his family has been irretrievably burned by its proximity to conflict. "It felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire."
The glowing embers in Buried suggest that fires do not simply go out of their own accord. The task that Doherty sets himself and that he has met with such painful and precise poetry is to acknowledge the cost of living through those flames and the necessity of facing them without fanning them.
• Until July 12