It doesn’t fit the picture of a city that consistently comes first or second in polls ranking the highest quality of life in the world, but Zurich is being squeezed – from without the mountains and lake that surround it on three sides limit its growth, while within the influx of foreigners, this writer among them, make the place ever denser. The resulting unsustainably high cost of housing explains the spread of ubiquitous Swiss cuboid apartment blocks into ever further flung tangential peripheries.
Willie Doherty’s Without Trace (2013) is one of the few films the artist has created outside of his native Northern Ireland. The thirteen-minute video work (alongside an accompanying series of photographs) observes a shallow waterway limning the terrain, the underside of Zurich’s arterial roads and new housing and building sites. Everything is covered in a fine, dampening blanket of snow. A female voice tells the tale of a migrant construction worker who, prior to his disappearance, had been possessed by growing disquiet regarding the city. This man believed the ground beneath him harboured secrets that surfaced only rarely as a result of excavation, upheaval or thaw.
This view is at odds with an idea of the city in which tradition and modernity harmoniously coexist in a pristine setting. Doherty’s Zurich is deserted, whether he is observing the interstitial spaces beneath the massive concrete of the motorway feeding into the city or the developments that have landed like Monopoly houses, where building details imitate the now absent plant life.
These are impressions of the city we’d rather ignore, for they don’t fit any of the facets of Zurich’s carefully cultivated public self-image, be that its modest Protestantism, bohemian culture, successful banking or urban liberalism. Doherty’s film taps into the common idea of a sense of something sinister, lurking latent beneath the surface. His images are seductively beautiful, the difficulty, for those who know Zurich well, is that by creating a fiction that is uncomfortably close to reality in speaking of what might be hidden, the interloper artist has revealed the city’s blind spot.