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Drumming



Waving Flags, Tandragee, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


With the series called Drumming the artist quarried larger themes. The initial subject matter is still Orangeism and its celebratory rites, as displayed during the Twelfth of July parades, but this subject matter is now related to the current political context in that the 1986 Parades took place at a time of heightened tension caused by the Anglo-Irish agreement, an agreement which large sections of the Protestant/Orange population regarded with marked suspicion. The numerous references to ‘Ulster Says No’ refer to the various campaigns run by groupings as varied as local councils or Orange Lodges, all of which aimed for the elimination of the Agreement, an agreement which acknowledged the interests of the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Ireland situation. The message of the campaigns was blunt: the Protestant Ascendancy will be maintained in the North! The artist is still dealing with images of the marching season as a baseline. “I followed them from about six a.m. in the morning until they went home that night. Individual Orange Lodges, in the small towns would be up at six and come in by coach from the country to the town, looking their best in clean gloves, sashes and so on.”



Carrying the Crown, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


Instead of working on traditional photographic small size, Sloan opted for a much larger scale, that of the traditional medium sized easel picture. The predominant tone is a sepia one, rather like early hand-tinted photographs: records of a bygone age. There is a neat paradox in this conceit in that the events depicted are threateningly present tense whereas the Marching Season, with its commemoration of a three-hundred-year-old Battle of the Boyne triumphalism allied to the maintenance of a Protestant Ascendancy, is solidly anachronistic. As with The Walk, the Platform and the Field, we still view bowler-hated gentlemen with sashes, crowds assembled on a bridge or flute players marching. Children still partake; white symbols of innocence; reminders of uncorrupted youth who will imbibe sectarian hatreds.




Marching, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


However the mark-making, as well as the scale, has taken on a new urgency. In almost every image the central figure struggles to emerge from a miasma of marks which compress both background and middle ground into foreground, and even seem to press down upon the foreground itself. It’s as if the image was caught between ineluctable forces; as if the Apocalypse were actually happening; as if space itself cracks as the known world ceases to exist. This sense of millennial Apocalypse is framed by a controlling irony: the figures are trapped in time (a neat photographic pun this as photographs arrest time in a linear fashion). The painterly attack extends this notion as the baseline images are trapped in the flux of history (just as the Orangemen are trapped in their own historicism) as opposed to a moment in time. As a result the metaphoric implications are clear: the Orangemen are anachronistic figures beached in a wilderness of the present tense; outmoded, unable to change, they are helpless before Time’s onslaught. The biblical Apocalypse, ironically a source of much of their verbal imagery, has caught up them rather than with the Pope-ridden Romanists. The world of these images is the world of the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign viewed simultaneously from two vantage points: the first is that of the Orangemen themselves, convinced of their uprightness, integrity and their ability to say No to direct rule from Westminster.


Umbrellas, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


In Marching 1 for instance there are two ‘Ulster Says No’ posters on the road sign while Field 11 displays a ‘Co. Armagh Orangemen say No’ banner, strung across a field. The second viewpoint is a critique which expresses Sloan’s authorial viewpoint through his interventions. The authorial voice is neither Nationalist nor Loyalist; nor is it vituperative. Rather it is an unlinking authorial presence which tries to suggest the logical outcome of the Unionist mentality, as seen in this vein. In essence it’s a voice which raises unpalatable questions. The double X’s on one of the posters ram home the unthinking support given at the ballot box (the X is for one’s vote) while simultaneously suggesting defacement and thus opposition. The slashing calligraphy of strokes is a grim reminder of the violence that will ensue while the volcanic-like swirls which dominate the atmosphere - another Pompeii - suggest the impending World’s End… or a least the end of the world as we know it. These vortex-like movements are paradigms for the very fabric of space and time which are now in danger of collapse.

Allied to the millennial fervour, and to a certain extent providing a human baseline, is a grim black humour (a very Northern Irish characteristic). Apart from the photographic pun of being trapped in time, which is a controlling irony, there are numerous local ironies: the reed of the bagpipe in Marching 1 looks like a bazooka while the musicians themselves are partially enveloped by the fabric of space and time which seems to be torn by the music itself which emanates from their instruments. It’s as if space is given the musical notation of rupture: as if each note signals a tear in space which is annotated by some malevolent prankster. Music, the metaphor for harmony, now provokes disharmony.


Flute Playing, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


This notion is implicit in the paradox of the title: Drumming. On one level the drums are usually perceived as providing the beat, the rhythm, the basic time signature for a tune. However, the word ‘drum’ resonates in other ways. As the artist himself notes it can refer to wardrums, to the Orange tradition of drumming (territoriality), and to the notion of drumming something into somebody’s head - a vernacular expression which can be taken in both a positive and a negative sense. Thus it is both celebration and warcry, both assertion of identity in the positive sense, and imposition of identity in the negative sense; both harmony and disharmony; both continuation of tradition in the manner of a richly endowed culture (the benign aspect) and the ossification of tradition in the manner of the stubborn grip of outmoded concepts.
Tribal energies have been scraked to the surface, revealing the dark underbelly, the Janus face. In Carrying the Crown a small girl carries a replica of the Queen’s crown, symbolising the loyalty of the Unionists to the English parliament, a loyalty which contrives to ignore the disloyalty of the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign.

Holding the Rope, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


In Holding the Rope, a similar girl exists in a bubble or tear in the swirling fabric of space; a quiet oasis. But she is branded by a zigzag of black which rhymes with the other dominant figures in the image, that of the three policemen in flak jackets; black figures who represent the world she will grow into. As Gerry Burns aptly remarked, the cracked paint “like layers on an old wall… (is) an image in itself of the various cultural layers which have merged to form many of the North’s current political ideas.”

These are deeply pessimistic works which demonstrate that the artist is totally in control of his medium. They are also ‘more aware’ than earlier images in that Sloan was consciously considering the possibilities of each intervention. If the Walk, the Platform and the Field was an instinctive leap into the dark, then the present series represents the ‘caught’ subject matter, refined and controlled, and extended conceptually, by means of a focused technique.




Marching I, Armagh City, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


To think of the artist as simply a photographer is absurd when confronted by this image which bears all the traces of editing and addition for the sake of composition, meaning, and focus. The scene is Barrack Street in Armagh where his granny used to live. To the left is where his father was born. Almost all the detail of the buildings has been edited out, as have a large number of marchers who were originally located at the bottom of the frame. One marcher only has been highlit, and the whole is enveloped in a painted miasma. This work is savage in its irony. The smiling, sashed marcher looks into the distance, flanked by the road sign indicating the hated Republic of Ireland (the Monaghan sign). On the sign are two ‘Ulster Says No’ posters, one of which is cancelled by a series of scraking X’s. In Sloan’s mind the road sign was like a banner which cross-linked to the poster and the Orangemen. All around though, is the indistinct blur of buildings and roadways, as space itself is devastated: the fabric of space and time rends and cracks as the known world ceases to exist.


Field II (Co. Armagh Orangemen Still Say No!), silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


Field II, Version 1 (Co. Armagh Orangemen Still Say No!), silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 66.5cms x 69.5cms, 1986


This is another pastoral image which has been subverted and reinvented. If one compares the earlier Field II (Version I) and later versions of this work one can see the extent to which Sloan has tightened the focusing of the image, editing out flags, various spectators including a woman sitting on a canvas chair, and an earlier intervention which resulted in a number of somewhat biomorphic shapes. The finished image highlights the ‘Co. Armagh Orange still say No’ banner, placing it firmly between the natural world as represented by the copse of trees, and the supernatural world of an apocalyptic vision.


Route (Safe Home Brethren), silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


In the early days of photography, the time of the big plate cameras, a character would almost disappear if he moved when the photograph was being taken. He would become a ghostly presence. The artist deliberately attempted to get this effect with the figures in the foreground, as if to suggest previous generations. We are shown a crowd of marchers who are funnelling from the ‘field’ and going into the town. Bunting strung between the telegraph poles, and the vertical street lights, provide an avenue-architecture for the image. As ever, what is seen is not necessarily what was originally there. Buildings have been changed into trees and road signs have been edited out. There is a neatly ironic conceit at the heart of the work. The banner bears the legend ‘Safe Home Brethren’ whereas the circular vortex-like movements suggest that this is somewhat unlikely.


Marching II, Armagh City, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986


As with a zoom lens in a movie, we are taken right into a crowd scene. Most of the people are facing away from us except for a woman mid right, and three sashed and bowlered Orangemen top left. This work is very close to the Moving Windows series in terms of rich subtle colouring of yellows, pinks and blue-greens. It’s an impressionistic crowd scene, visually regaling the eye with colour and movement. The use of markings, gouache and watercolours shift the image decisively towards abstraction. This is reinforced by the interlace of zigzag markings which overlay the composition.

Some of the figures are insubstantial and ghostlike; cancelled out as well by the scraking calligraphy, as if the Orangemen were literally reducing themselves to cutouts; as if they were losing their identity or were disorientated amidst a fog.


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




Beating the Drum, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986



Crossing the Bridge, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986



Entering the Field, Armagh, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986



Drumming (1986), continued with the same interests and met with both critical and popular acclaim. As the series title now suggested Sloan ‘drummed’ this annual occurrence beyond myth: the gestural marks now froze the still photograph into a silence that echoed beyond the day’s event. The nervous energy these works unloaded could embrace innocence, but above all, ensnare tensions. They cut new ground.


In Holding the Rope (1986), a little girl in white dress walks forward, assisting in the ‘celebration’. Sloan depicts her inclusion as an initiation rite, where the child unknowingly will thread a disputed and marshalled route as signified by the black-clad police who occupy the right half of the picture space. She will eventually enter the ‘field. Another work entitled Entering the Field (1986) indeed has an aura of a holy place. Religion and land always co-habit in Ireland. The sky is dominant (less than a spatial quarter for the land) and marks the ground below with its turbulence – like a sign from God. Trust in God, within loyalism, is seen to ensure freedom and righteousness.



Extract from Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland by Liam Kelly