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Belfast Zoo

In 1983 Victor Sloan paid a visit to Belfast Zoo with his children. He brought a camera to take some family snaps, but he ended up taking a different, more troubled and troubling kind of photograph. He found himself standing looking in sadness and dismay at the chimpanzees trapped behind a pane of scratched, scarred, battered perspex, its cloudy surface smeared with ice cream and marked by graffiti. As he observes now: "Someone said that you can tell a lot about a society by the state of its zoo."

There and then he decided to take photographs of the animals. But rather than trying to isolate them from their context, he deliberately viewed them entirely in terms of their context. The chimpanzees are virtually silhouettes, distanced, tenuous presences behind grubby perspex. The glare of the flash bounces uncomfortably back at us and the images have a worn, battered look about them.

Even if viewed as straightforward monochromatic prints, they disrupt the conventional aesthetics of the photograph. It's as if, iconoclastically, Sloan is making it difficult for us to see the nominal subject, the chimpanzee. But, perhaps to emphasize that he is interested in something more, even something besides that entirely, he works onto the surface of many of the prints with oil pastel, toner and even collage, counterpointing the aggressively jagged, random-seeming textures, and further challenging our habitual faith in the camera's promise of truthful clarity, and in the seamless integrity of the photographic surface.

These days, of course, that faith has been substantially undermined by our awareness of the ease with which images can be manipulated, but at the time Sloan's approach was fairly radical, and even now the fact that he continues to emphasise the manual, physical gesture, pointing up roughnesses and discontinuities in the pictorial fabric rather than trying to convince us of its unitary, smooth verisimilitude, is striking. It is true that he had studied painting, which presumably emboldened him in working directly onto the photographic surface, and it is accurate to say that his photographic work has substantially consisted of a hybridisation of painting and photography. He was also conscious that, in exhibiting photographs in an art context, people might dismiss them as being "just photographs", and he instinctively wanted to make that kind of response difficult, to present the viewer with something photographic that was not exactly a photograph.

In fact the distressed surface of the perspex in his zoo pictures is a prototype for the kind of photographic print that has continued to fascinate him, a surface that will not, so to speak, let us be, that obtrudes between us and any habitual, privileged relationship with the image, a surface that not only eats corrosively into the nominal image, but also becomes in itself a different kind of image: a difficult, uncomfortable image that we cannot easily assimilate. We might draw from this the implication that, figuratively speaking, everything we see is distorted, embedded as it is in its inevitable matrix of cultural meaning.

In his photographs of chimpanzees he hit on something else that has been of enduring relevance to virtually all of his subsequent work. That is what might be termed the notion of theatre or performance and the linked ideas of repetition and ritual. He goes on to develop these ideas in a specific and personal way, but they are clearly linked to the Post-modernist diagnosis, extending back to the writings of Guy Dabord in the 1960s, of contemporary life as constituting a society of the spectacle.

Numerous theorists have since elaborated this thesis to develop varieties of a model of Late Capitalist society in which, caught up in a process of rampant commodification, we find ourselves inhabiting a depthless, necessarily ahistorical space in which pretty much everything - including art, culture and history itself - has been robbed of substance and is available to us only in the form of commodified representations - as spectacle. Our involuntary role is that of consumers in a global marketplace. History, for example, might be re-packaged as a nebulously defined category of heritage and our experience of it reduced to parodic theme park encounters.

However, a recurrent, forcefully argued feature of Sloan's work is the implication that the intractable textures of history, in the form of unresolved ideological conflicts, questions and contradictions, will tend to break through the apparently depthless skin of spectacle to which it has been confined. He pursues this argument relentlessly, predominantly in relation to theatricalised representations of history, and this would include history codified as tradition, in Northern Ireland. Far from being in any sense neutral or benign, such representations, he implies, are always ideologically grounded, ideologically motivated and engaged, always tied to the unfolding politics of the present and bound up with questions about the future.

The chimpanzees in their cage are on show. The contemporary debate on the ethics of zoos relates to the contested point where elucidation shades over into entertainment, and to the specious presumption of superiority, all issues pertinent, as it happens, to human societies. It also touches on the conditions of captivity. The thing about animals confined to zoos is that their lives have, particularly in the past, been reduced to impoverished, repetitive parodies of their existence in the wild. Sloan photographed various kinds of animals in the zoo, but felt himself drawn back to the images of chimps because, as he says, we relate to monkeys, we see ourselves in them. The caged animal, its life recast and displayed as a theatrical, reductive parody of itself, is a metaphor for the individual immersed in the codified, ritualised world of a social and cultural framework.

These ideas, of a sceptical, iconoclastic impulse, of a corrosive filter as a condition of perception, of social existence viewed in terms of theatrical parody and performance, and of the related role of repetition and ritual, to a great extent underlie a huge and what is on the face of it a remarkably complex and heterogeneous body of work to date. Another central idea also emerges in the zoo images. It does so indirectly, and it is elsewhere indirectly, if pointedly, applied. It relates to notions of faith, bad faith and betrayal. In the photographs, the chimpanzees are unmistakable icons of betrayal, victims of a misplaced faith in human beneficence. The question of what faith really is, and who has the right to profess it, surfaces again in Sloan's images.

Extract from A Broken Surface: Victor Sloan's Photographic Work by Aidan Dunne in Victor Sloan: Selected Works 1980-2000, published by Ormeau Baths Gallery and Orchard Gallery, January, 2001.

Belfast Zoo II, silver gelatin print and toner, 29.5cms x 39cms, 1983.

In retrospect Belfast Zoo II prefigures a number of those in The Birches series where portrait-style heads acquire animal characteristics. Animals are used frequently in contemporary Irish art to indicate bestiality. Again, the somewhat surreal tone of the image suggest later developments, as do the physical qualities of the image depicted. In all his later work -and increasingly so with each series – Sloan explored interventionist processes such as toning, using razor blades or needles to scrape and score, and making varied marks by means of watercolours and gouache. The close-up nature of this image, drawing attention as it does to the scores and smears on the Perspex of the cage, anticipates Sloan’s use of interventionist techniques.

Extract from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England

Belfast Zoo I, silver gelatin print, toner, 25.5cms x 37cms, 1983

Belfast Zoo V, silver gelatin print, 36.5cms x 27.5cms, 1983

Belfast Zoo IV, silver gelatin print, toner and oil pastel, 28.5cms x 39cms, 1983

….the anger in the marking in Victor Sloan’s images is literally visible on the surface of the works. Sloan brings the meaning of the work to the surface of the photographic print, most clearly in the Belfast Zoo series, in exactly the same way that the chimpanzees press forward, from a darkness, against the scratched and battered surface of the perspex barriers. The marking, in this case in an early set of works, is a given but in later series is deliberately made by the artist in/on works which both describe and deny the illusion of pictorial space, to bring the anxieties of the subjects represented to the surface. That tension has been used extensively and consistently by Sloan in his work and is handled with particular subtlety in the Day of Action series, where the emptiness of the photographed locations in Bangor, on the day of a political strike in Northern Ireland, is negated by the gestural marks on the print which are like ectoplasmic ghosts of the people who are absent and can only be made visible as insertions by the photographic process.

Exact from A Shout in the Street: Collective Histories of Northern Irish Art, by Declan McGonagle, published by the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast Zoo IV (Monochrome), silver gelatin print, toner and oil pastel, 28.5cms x 39cms, 1983

Belfast Zoo VI, silver gelatin print, toners, 29.5cms x 39cms, 1983

Belfast Zoo III, silver gelatin print, toner, oil pastel and torn paper, 25cms x 25cms, 1983

Victor Sloan started his art practice as an abstract painter. He had always used the camera but it was not until 1981 that he began to use the medium systematically. However, he had no intention of producing ‘pure’ photographs for exhibition purposes.

“I want a photograph to say more than a photograph usually says. It’s not just a photograph in a magazine. It’s a statement… something personal. I want to make people to look at the image in a different way; see behind the image. People tend to dismiss photographs as just being photographs.”

It is clear therefore that Sloan is not simply interested in the formal qualities of the ‘well-taken’ photograph. He wishes to quarry the expressive potential of photographic imagery, not merely in the search for some form of pictorial beauty, but rather in the search for meaning.

To this end he uses many of the techniques of the painter:

“My images are the result of two reactions: an initial reaction to the subject; and a reaction to the resulting photographic negative and/or print (The latter reaction being explored by means of mixed-media techniques). If the original negative isn’t good, it’ll never be any good, no matter what you do to it.”

Sloan always works in series. The negative for the Belfast Zoo series, which was his first major set of images, were taken at Bellevue, and proved to be the template for many of his recurring concerns. Although his intervention was limited to the cropping and the toning of the prints, the resultant images uncannily prefigure many of his later effects.

The subject matter is that of monkeys, viewed through the perspex of their cages. However the perspex itself was scored, scraped, scratched, and in places smashed, with the result that the finished prints anticipate Sloan’s use of such techniques on his later work. In addition, his use of flashgun at close range to the perspex results in shellbursts of light which also anticipate his later use of gestural mark-making. While it is true that the artist disclaims any social or political intention at this juncture – it was to be a while before he consciously began to interrogate his images – nevertheless, a number of these images function metaphorically as statements about Northern Ireland. For example Belfast Zoo I, reveals the legend ‘I.R.A.’ scraped into the perspex, encouraging a reading which would suggest that the Northern Irish are trapped by the I.R.A., like the monkeys in the cage. They can stare outwards but are incapable of effecting change: they are prisoners in their own society.

Extract from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England

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