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Road, Drumcree, Portadown, C-type print, 126.5cms x 160cms, 2000

…the apparently endless repetition of ritualised conflict in Portadown is inevitably dispiriting. As it happens, Sloan's work based on the annual Drumcree stand-off is a departure in several respects, but it is also a restatement of his enduring themes and concerns. It incorporates a video, shot unobtrusively on a small camcorder, and the still images are large-format colour. He makes a point of not being at Drumcree during the stand-off, when the world's media descend en masse. This is entirely in line with his practice of eschewing sensational images in which the heightened emotional charge eclipses analytical considerations. Again and again the logic of his work is that problems must be tackled in the workaday ground of social reality, not in terms of the politics of the last atrocity. It may seem like an obvious point, but it is one easily and understandably lost.

Bridge, Drumcree, Portadown, C-type print, 126.5cms x 160cms, 2000

Whereas usually Sloan attacks and distresses the surface of the photograph, and perhaps colours it in an arbitrary way, arbitrary, that is, in relation to naturalist convention, his Portadown images are photographs of distressed surfaces. The violence has already been done to what is depicted, and what is depicted is invariably flat, is itself all surface, a plane, a fragment of wall or ground. All photographic content has been, so to speak compressed into this plane, a surface which is essentially a mute repository of violence. These surfaces are, typically and variously, an internal wall of a burnt-out house in Portadown, a patch of tarmacadam on the road, a skin of a massed concrete construction at Drumcree, recalling the perspex in Belfast zoo or the bus shelter in Craigavon.

House II, Edenderry, Portadown, C-type print,126.5cms x 160cms, 2000

House III, Edenderry, Portadown, C-type print, 126.5 cms x 160 cms, 2000

One bright day last November I drove out from the centre of Portadown with Sloan, from the domain of the Union Jack to the domain of the tricolour, down the Garvaghy Road and around by the hill at Drumcree. We parked below the church and walked back up the road, standing by the tiny bridge looking out across the fields that had been transformed into something resembling a First World War battlefield during the long days and nights of the annual stand-off. Now there wasn't a soul to be seen. It was to all intents and purposes a perfectly ordinary, even tranquil, late autumn scene. The trees were lit up with the last flush of colour. Rough grass had reclaimed the churned-up, muddied ground. Sloan was curious to see my reaction.

Bus Shelter, Garvaghy Road, Portadown, C-type print, 126.5cms x 160cms, 2000

Tunnel, Portadown, C-type print, 126.5cms x 160cms, 2000

There were, he pointed out, a few tell-tale signs of what had gone on. Army engineers had built odd looking housings into each side of the bridge to accommodate barriers. The ground was subtly scarred and pitted with strange marks and discolourations: blast bombs. By no means unique to Drumcree, he pointed out. The church wall was also marked. Imagine the energy, the temperature required to do that to massed concrete, he said, pointing out one patch of scarring. It was impossible not to imagine frail human bodies in proximity to such catastrophic levels of explosive energy.

Church Wall 1, Drumcree, Portadown, C-type print, 125.5cms x 160cms, 2000

Church Wall II, Drumcree, Portadown, C-type print, 124cms x 218cms, 2000

The work is sonorously beautiful and painterly, and not only in the way that Tapies appropriated the dirty, weathered textures and the pent-up energies of the physical fabric of the old city of Barcelona to make gruff, abrasive paintings. There is a lot of colour in the Portadown images, so that they become readable as formalist abstractions, as colour fields. To that extent, Sloan agrees, they might even be about "how the situation could be nice." Yet behind the putative niceness, as behind the apparent normality, the rural quietness of the church on the hill (and, vitally, just as specific histories of violence are stored up in the images), there are the huge, ominous energies of dreaded, intractable, recurrent conflicts centred on Drumcree and Portadown.

House I, Edenderry, Portadown, C-type print, 127cms x 230cms, 2000

In a different form, these energies are also bound up in the odd stasis of the interminable succession of public speeches delivered by members of the Orange Order from an impromptu mobile platform at Drumcree in the days preceding the twelfth. These form the subject of the video, which typically chronicles the amateur dramatics quality of the proceedings (the step-ladder, the yawning gaps between image and reality) without in any way commenting on it. Everything about the scene is theatrical, from the presentation to the overblown rhetoric of the speakers (a comparison with Calvary is routinely invoked), but given the weight of the concerns, the supposedly earth-shaking significance of Drumcree, the entire thing is oddly ramshackle, undramatic and seems curiously lacking in conviction. It's all like a performance without a heart. What people usually see are images of high drama.

Still from Drumcree, 36 minute video

All of this might well be taken as supportive of the most forceful line of interpretation that can consistently and plausibly be applied to his work, which is that there is an empty theatricality at the heart of Northern Ireland's historical drama of cultural identity. It is clear by now that this goes some way beyond the routine use of metaphors of performance in political commentary. We've grown accustomed to hearing of proceedings, including events at Drumcree itself, becoming a circus, of getting the choreography right, of talks and agreements being stage-managed, of rhetoric being pitched at the appropriate or inappropriate level. Sloan takes such rhetoric and subjects it to withering examination.

Still from Drumcree, 36 minute video

As so often, integral to his view of Drumcree is the idea of circularity and repetition, encapsulated in the looped video of banal speechifying in which the point is that nothing changes, that the voices might go on forever in a reassuring ritual of self-confirmation. The intended route of the Orange marchers, out of town to the church and back to town again via the Garvaghy Road, is a circuit which they are thwarted from completing. It seems fair to say that, beyond the ethical questions about freedom of movement, of civil liberties, or competing rights and duties, and beyond the local facts of Drumcree, there is a disturbing symbolism for the Orange Order in the widest context in its not being allowed to complete a validating commemorative circuit based on historical precedent, which is at root a confirmation that everything remains as it was, that nothing has changed and nothing will change. Here, again, the notion of tradition means something like the ritualistic reiteration of the categorical exclusion of the possibility of change. And, conversely, for those residents of the Garvaghy Road and, in the wider geographical and political context, others who object to the marchers, the symbolism, of a break in the repetitive chain, is equally potent.

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

Still from Drumcree, 36 minute video

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