A moving image

Willie Doherty uses his art to explore the underlying issues and complexity behind the politics in Northern Ireland

November 27, 2008

Next week sees the announcement of the winner of the Turner Prize. The shortlist includes sculptor Cathy Wilkes, a fine art graduate of the University of Ulster and the fourth Ulster graduate to be nominated.

She follows video artist Phil Collins, sculptor Christine Borland and Willie Doherty, the university's professor of video art who has twice been a nominee.

"It brings an unprecedented amount of attention to an artist's work," Professor Doherty said.

"What I found reassuring, despite the attempts of some of the press to dumb down the whole experience, was the level of debate in the gallery, both in terms of artists' talks and presentations and also because the Tate itself gets such a large audience." There are more people visiting galleries, which he believes is long overdue.

He said: "Here we see it as separate from the rest of our lives, while in other European countries, there's a much greater sense of it being what people do, an engagement with cultural life as relevant as reading a novel or going to the theatre. There isn't this scorn surrounding it.

"Maybe attitudes are changing, and the kind of work we like to champion in Belfast is the kind of work that audiences respond to."

All of the Ulster nominees' work has a political or social slant, which Professor Doherty said is typical of the institution's highly regarded masters in fine art. Academically, it is arguably on a par with major London colleges such as Goldsmiths and the Slade, but life in Belfast is radically different from life in a cosmopolitan metropolis. The scars of religious and political divisions cannot fail to influence the students' art.

Professor Doherty, who was born in Derry, where he still lives, studied at what was then Ulster Polytechnic in the 1970s, the height of the Troubles.

"A question for all our students is what should be the subject of art. For many, it starts off being a process akin to autobiography. It led me to think, if you choose to live here, how do you live in a proactive way, as opposed to victimhood?"

Professor Doherty was frustrated that many images of Northern Ireland's conflict were made by people who did not live there, adding to the sense of disenfranchisement.

He said: "As artists, it is not our job to cover the news but to look at the underlying issues and concerns.

"The experience of living through the period we've lived through has allowed us to form methods of working that don't depend on either an easy reading of a situation or looking for immediate answers. There's layered complexity."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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