During the summer of 1990, the American Circus Ltd visited Portadown. One Sunday, Sloan and his family decided to go to the circus and were surprised to encounter a group of protestors trying to deter people from going in. The event prompted him to think about making some circus photographs. When he eventually exhibited some of these photographs he included an extract from the Lurgan Mail in the catalogue to provide an explanatory context:
"One hundred 'Never on a Sunday' campaigners were outside the American Circus Ltd big top in a bid to persuade punters to boycott the afternoon and evening performances. Mr Woolsey Smith, Worshipful Master of the Independent Lodge who took part in the protest described it as a 'great success'....’What we did not agree with was the further desecration of the Sabbath. As far as we are concerned, the desecration of the Sabbath has gone far enough. The Sabbath is part of our heritage and by and large the majority of people do not want circus performances on a Sunday.
'We can't understand it,' said ringmaster Philip Hansen. 'Most of the circus members had doubts about coming to Northern Ireland. They thought it was another Beruit. We managed to persuade them that it wasn't as bad as it appeared on TV, but since arriving we have had nothing but hassle.'"
Given the harmless nature of the target, the protest provides an incongruous glimpse back into a familiar Ulster of denial, restriction and religiosity, to Derek Mahon's Belfast Sundays with
dank churches, the empty streets,
Perch Balancers, the Duo Oprescu (Viva and Audrey), Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and gouache, 43.5cms x 55.5cms, 1991
Highland Garvan Horses presented by Tanya, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and gouache, 43.5cms x 43.5cms, 1991
Trampoline Act, Souza Family, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and gouache, 43.5cms x 56cms, 1991
Foot Juggler, Nadia Krushnikova (Pilar Garcia), assisted by her father Luis, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach, gouache, 43cms x 55.5cms 1991
Plate Spinning, Pepe’s Pizza Parlour, Sandow and Wife, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach and gouache, 43cms x 55.5cms 1991
The Wheel of Death, Cameilla and George, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach, gouache, 43cms x 55.5cms 1991
African Elephant and Audrey Hanson, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, dyes, bleach, gouache, 77cms x 100cms, 1991
One of Sloan's best-known circus images pictures an elephant trainer, Audrey Hansen, lying on a mat on the ground while an African elephant towers above her. On one level it is an extremely threatening, sexual image, with the mass of the animal, and its explicitly phallic tusk poised above the prone, bare-legged Hansen, and it has generally been interpreted as such. And it is certainly tempting to read into it further dark allegorical hints based on this sexual interpretation. Yet really a more persuasive argument has to be that an underlying theme here, as with all of the circus images, which are exceptionally affirmative, has to do with faith and trust.
While the surface is aggressively worked with pigment and chemicals, the attack - an attempt to censor the images which might be read as a counterpart of the protestors' attempt to preserve the Sabbath - serves only to outline rather than, as elsewhere, undermine the central drama of the image. But the drama here, though it is a practised theatrical ritual, depends on a literal act of faith on the part of all the performers, including Hansen, who entrusts herself to the care and adroitness of a creature - a genuinely unknown, unknowable Other - which could easily injure or kill her. It is the core of trust and interdependence that Sloan repeatedly emphasises. Louis MacNeice captured the sacramental aspect of the circus in his poem about trapeze artists:
" …… Like dolls or angels
Sexless and simple
Our fear their frame,
Hallowed by handclaps,
Honoured by eyes
Upward in incense
In a crucifixion's
The logic of Sloan's images reverses the apparent order of what was happening that Sunday in Portadown. The self-righteous moralists who profess to uphold the integrity of the Sabbath are participants in a hollow performance buoyed up by empty rhetoric, like Mahon's preacher:
"Your people await you, their heavy washing
flaps for you in the housing estates -
a credulous people. God, you could do it, God
help you, stand on a corner stiff
with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun."
The protestors are, in other words, the circus performers in the pejorative sense of making a circus of their faith. While, inside the tent, the performers are enacting rituals of genuine trust, putting themselves on the line and completely dependent on each other, engaging in real acts of faith. And so much of what the performers do as entertainment, in play - juggling, spinning, jumping - depends on poise and balance, on achieving a precarious physical equilibrium that we can read as an equivalent to efforts to negotiate a compromise and maintain a political equilibrium. It is the performers, the entertainers, who act in good faith, while those who occupy the high moral ground have "nothing under the sun" to offer.
Extracts 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
Return to Works