The Walk, the Platform and the Field
Less than twenty years ago it was still the custom to view Impressionist painting in terms of retinal stimulation. Books such as T.J. Clark’s The painting of Modern Life: Manet and hisFollowers (London 1985) and exhibitions such as The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 (Washington 1986) re-orientated our attitudes, alerting us to the fresh approaches and to the new expressiveness evolved in France to deal with the subject matter: the iconography of Modern Life. Put simply, it was the striking formal aspects of Impressionist painting which dominated most assessments of their work. It was to be a long while before the content of their work was examined.
At the other end of the spectrum work which had a strong political and social context, and which was firmly rooted in an indigenous context – such as that of Diego Rivera – was immediately accessible in terms of content to the local audience but needed the patient, contextual excavation of critics before it travelled to an international audience: the formal and aesthetic qualities travelled easily but there was a timelag before the meaning of the work became clear to a non-local audience.
When faced with the work of Victor Sloan (and that of many other Northern Irish artists) these considerations need to be borne in mind. The aesthetic impact is there for all to experience but the work can become deracinated – and thus the meaning can be skewed – if the context is not appreciated. Most people know Northern Ireland through media images of The Troubles. These images are probably overlaid with Tourist Board images of Ireland in general, as large numbers of individuals outside Ireland do not distinguish between Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland which is not. These two sets of images – the photojournalist Troubles variety (be it on newsprint or on television) and the Tourist Board version - are selling viewpoints. These viewpoints are simplified, distorted, and highly selective. They give the appearance of a documentary ‘reality’ but they bend the truth. Sloan’s images eschew the neat-and-tidy graphic image. They are a critique of simplification.
The Walk, the Platform and the Field is the first major sequence of works by this artist which attempts to tackle a crucial area of Northern Irish experience. Such work broods upon the interconnections between the accumulated ideas and incidents of Irish history, and history-in-the-making: the present tense of The Troubles. It broods upon the relationship between politics and historical processes, and the interplay between traditions and religious affiliations. As all of Sloan’s subsequent work, to date, extends outwards from the baseline laid down in the present series – the Twelfth of July parades – some context is necessary.
The traditional Marching Season, that is the Twelfth of July Parades (also called the Orange Parades) occurs during the ‘Twelfth Fortnight’ every July. It celebrates the victory of the protestant King, William of Orange (William III) from the ‘tyranny’ of the catholic King, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Over a hundred years later the Orange Society, now called the Orange Order was formed in 1795. Its motto ‘I Will Maintain’ was the family motto of the Dutch House of Orange.
Attitudes to the Orange Society, like attitudes to history itself, are the stuff of mythology. Consider the following quotations. The first is from an official Orange Order pamphlet called Why Orangeism (by Brother the Reverent Dr M W Dewar, 1959): ‘A century passed, and the cause of militant Irish Roman Catholicism, suppressed at the Boyne, found new support from the politics of the French Revolution and the aggressions of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was now the threat to Britain’s peace and security. Not for the last time the ‘two Irelands’ reacted differently to ‘England’s extremity’. The succession to the thrown had been securely established in the House of Brunswick, today called the House of Windsor, ‘being protestant’. During the 1780’s, long before the Irish Rebellion of 1798 brought these smouldering hatreds to a flame, attacks by Roman Catholic terrorist bands upon their protestant neighbours were frequent. Now these included such bodies as the ‘Defenders’, and later the ‘Ribbonmen’ who waged guerrilla warfare against the ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’ and other protestant protective organisations. But three years before the ’98 (i.e. the rebellion of 1798) Orangeism itself was reborn in a new form among the apple orchards of Co. Armagh…’ (p.13)
Compare this to the comments of the historian Robert Kee in his book Ireland: A History: ‘The original Orange Society…had been simply a reorganisation with Masonic overtones of an agrarian and working class secret society called the ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’. This was so named because it was much given to terrorising catholics out of their homes at dawn, ‘papering’ their doors with notices saying ‘To Hell or Connaught’, an injunction to remove themselves south and west which they were inclined to obey when they saw the barbarous punishments, such as kneecapping, inflicted on those who did not.
At the time of the United Irishmen and their attempt at rebellion in the years 1797-98 – a confusing time because it was one group of presbyterian radicals who originated the idea of bringing protestant and catholic Irishmen together in one national denomination – the authorities, while disapproving of the Orangemen’s wilder excesses, had also seen the advantages of exploiting secretion prejudiced to the full’. (pp. 137-8)
Two more quotations, from the same sources, will have to suffice as regards the chasm separating attitudes to the Orange Order. According to the Order it is ‘a powerful inculcation of tolerance, impressing on every member the duties of brotherly kindness and charity, and forbidding the injuring or upbraiding of any man on account of his religious opinions… The errors and superstitions of Romanism (i.e. Catholicism) are not less dangerous now than when our Order was founded’ (p.3) whereas Robert Kee, while pointing out that the Orangemen’s official constitution spoke of brotherly love, toleration and loyalty to the Crown, also stated that a Royal Commission noted, in the wake of sectarian riots in Belfast in the 1850’s, that ‘in spite of this the uneducated and the unrefined, who act from feeling and impulse, and not from reflection, cannot be expected to restrain the passions excited by the lessons of their own dominancy and superiority over their fellow subjects whom they look upon as conquered foes’.
To put it simply the protestant Orange Lodges in the North of Ireland feared that they would be subsumed into a catholic majority within the whole of Ireland. This is why there was continuous opposition to the concept of Home Rule which would have severed the link with Britain. This is why Lord Randolph Churchill referred to the ‘Orange card’ as being the one to play when he was mobilising support against Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. By this he meant, as Robert Kee remarks, that the best way of opposing Home Rule was ‘to use the energies of the protestant Orange Lodges with their traditional fears of the catholic majority’.
Route III, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours, 36cms x 36cms, 1985.
With the creation of the state of Northern Ireland after partition the Unionist Party, which was protestant, effectively took control of the state. The catholic viewpoint is admirably summed up in Michael Farrell’s book Northern Ireland: The Orange State (2nd. edition, Pluto Press, London, 1980) when he remarks that ‘to put in perspective the recent emergence of “working class” Loyalist organisations such as the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) requires a full appreciation of the power of the Orange ideology, which was originally used by the Unionists to establish their own control over the protestant population, and has now assumed a virulent life of its own’. (p.11)
It is important to note that the foregoing quotations are meant to indicate the ‘Irish disease’ of living the present in terms of the past. They indicate the tribal loyalties and the subterranean wells of memory, folk memory and revisionist mythology. They do not however typify the protestant population as a whole, nor the catholic population as a whole. Furthermore, while the recognition of the so-called ‘two traditions’ (i.e. catholic and republican/protestant and loyalist) is useful for an understanding of the historical situation, it needs to be stressed that there are numerous overlapping ‘traditions’ in the North which do not divide neatly along religious or sectarian grounds.
Although the Twelfth Parades, in some cases, have been used as an assertion of territoriality – the triumphal marching through catholic areas – they are clearly an assertion of identity. In peaceful times they have a carnival atmosphere. The major evening paper in the North, the Belfast Telegraph, always publish a special supplement for the annual event: one which always reveals its outward manifestation, that of a celebratory event, a festive occasion, a spectacle for all the family. Gloved and bowler-hatted gentlemen with ceremonial swords, sashes and banners glittering in the sun march to the sound of accordion, bagpipe and Lambeg drum. Flute bands skirl, batons twirl skywards, and the streets are lined with spectators.
As a child the artist always went to such occasions. As an adult he brought his own children to them. They would have been difficult to avoid as they passed near his house. It was, as he says, ‘natural’ for him to go to them. When he started to make work on the subject his aim was ‘to try and show the parades …why they’re there…what they’re doing’. Ironically he also thought that what he was showing might be violence against the Orangemen. In fact, while some of the images ‘read’ in this sense, I believe that the opposite is really the case.
But before progressing to a commentary on the work, some terms need explaining: they are those which are used as titles for the individual works in the series.
The Walk: bandsmen march. The Orangemen walk to the Field.
Field: literally a field where they all congregate for the speeches.
Assembly: the Orangemen arrive from different towns and assemble before going on the walk.
Route: there are always problems in organising where the parades will walk. In mixed localities which are potentially flashpoint areas, police and army will patrol. Certain areas may be off limits.
Platform: usually a lorry or lorries placed in the field. The worshipful masters stand on the lorry platforms and make speeches as do politicians and clergymen and other guest speakers.
Victor Sloan registers all these varying aspects. He takes dozens of 35mm negatives, then selects those he can ’respond to’. With the aid of a magnifying glass he works directly on the negative, scratching it with a pin, ‘painting’ the negative with paint, which will crack, or with black ink either diluted or undiluted, which he will then dab off or on. Undiluted black ink for instance will register as a white area on the print. Such work is painstakingly performed with the aid of a magnifying glass. When the negative is worked to his satisfaction, it is then printed up, cropped into a square and occasional touches of gouache may be applied: colour heightening the reinvented black and white image.
Sloans’s techniques are remarkably flexible, being a synthesis between a modernist desire for abstraction and the traditional emblematic image. Field III for example, nominally a parade going under an archway and thus a traditional emblem of Unionist and Orange stability, is treated as if it were an abstract surface.
Field I, a dense calligraphy of slashes, becomes a visual pun : a ‘field’ of marks as in a grassy texture, created for the Orangemen as well as the literal field used for platform speeches.
Again, a work such as Walk VIII presents us with the traditional emblematic image: a bowler-hatted loyalist almost fills the frame, his figure running from his elbow at the bottom left, diagonally through to the edge of his bowler hat at the top right. The face is turned towards us, offering the diagonal made by his body but reinforcing the marching diagonal. The face itself is that of a calm, firmly fleshed, middle-aged man. He is conservatively but elegantly dressed in a suit, white shirt and carefully knotted tie: the picture of sobriety; of the perfect civil servant. His role, that of the Loyalist, the upholder of the Orange Order, is stressed by his regalia: bowler hat, gloves curved sword and sash complete with the number of his Loyalist Orange Lodge. The inferences that we are meant to draw are clear: decent, honest, upstanding,’ defender of the faith’; upholder of traditional Orangeism, and thus Unionism.
Route I, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours, 45.5cms x 45.5cms, 1985
This at any rate is the documentary side of the image which stresses the emblematic regalia. But Sloan has evolved a series of strategies which would (whether consciously or unconsciously) suggest a different perspective. His framing of the picture – or to be more precise his cropping of the image in conjunction with the framing – emphasises the foursquare solidarity and determination of the marchers: part of a never-ending triumph of the will. This solidarity and foursquare placing is reinforced by one of the uses of the artist’s mark making, that of cancellation: almost all of the original image on the left hand side has been painted out.
Colour is used symbolically. The use of black, from the diagonal swathe of the shoulder to the shadowed face with its cavernous black eye sockets, its black left side, and its head topped by a black bowler, proclaims the duality of man’s nature – good and evil; black and white – while Sloan’s scraking use of the pin on the original negative, a series of violent diagonal slashes echoing the ceremonial sword, provides an externalisation of the violence that lies dormant behind the festive surface (to scrake: Ulster idiom meaning ‘to score or scrape over’).
These slashes reinforce the emblematic references to man’s dual nature, for the pin as it scrapes through the black ink which has been applied to most of the original left-hand diagonal area, folds over the ink to form a parallel slash in white. As we peek over the man’s shoulder, into the tiny area untouched by the ink, we can see tiny shadowed faces, their hats white like halos, steadfastly bringing up the rear. They are ‘of the faith’, believing in their cause…but the halos imply an ironic subversion of their message.
Again and again this subversion of the image occurs. In Walk I for instance a sash-clad Orangeman walks diagonally towards us but his body is bisected by an arm, which is trust in front of him. This independent arm, as if unhinged from its owner, wields an umbrella which has been heavily overscored as if it were a sword which had slashed repeatedly through the air: an iconography of violence. The white washes of ink weave in and out and around the man, indicators of an irradiating energy, a field of force drummed up by the music, awaiting the tinderbox spark which will turn it into violent action.
This notion of latent violence, trapped and crystallised by the music of the drums is made manifest in Walk IV where, in between the serried ranks of Lambeg drummers, feet outraised in marching step, there is a veritable confetti of incised lines overdabbed with red and blue squiggles of gouache, fracturing and rending the air: wardrums – ironically referenced this time by the red, white and blue symbolism if the Union Jack flag. Sound, that of the war drums, is made visible, pictured in a manner which is, in itself, a metaphor for latent violence.
In this series of works, almost all of Sloan’s previous themes enmesh. The sense of an ominous, foreboding atmosphere which is a visual correlative for a state of unease is heightened in these works. In terms of subject matter the parade imagery has come to the forefront but is subjected to a much more searching and comprehensive interrogation. References to graffiti, emblems and symbols increase markedly. Formally however there are two opposing strategies at work. In terms of colour, the approach is towards simplification. Compare Moving Windows to any of the present series. With reference to mark-making however the techniques become more complex. Any given mark frequently functions on more than one level. It may cancel part of a previous image; highlight a section of an image; of act as either a metaphor for, or visual representation of, an idea or an activity (sound becomes externalised for example; likewise the implicated idea of violence). More and more Sloan focuses on his work into frontality; even into a single plane.
His exploration of the social and political arena is dense, layered, oblique and resonant. In terms of theme he jettisons the blunt, sensational, graphic images of photojournalism, and seeks for the authenticity of art. In the process the innocence of children and the experience of the adult world are beadily observed (see Assembly I or Route I). Visually his images find an equipoise between abstraction and figuration which locks the abstract areas into the figurative aspects of an image in a manor which insists on meaning.
In a quieter, almost tranquil vein, harkening back to the Victorian values of the pictorial, the artist focuses upon the genre image of two children in a garden, mussed by sunshine, who are sitting on a white curiqued seat, in front of a stone façade which is over-reached by a dense canopy of greenery. This cliché is then subverted, becoming in the process a meditation upon a particular strand of Irish history, brooding upon the connections between past and present, and making an ironic statement on the Irish tendency to live past history in the present.
To the right of the image stands a loyalist banner, hung from poles, and fluttering in the wind. Its legend reads, in good King Billy parlance, ‘No Surrender’. The ubiquitous black ink has been applied, resulting in the edges of the banner dissolving into whiteness, like some ghostly visitation from the past. Other brushed areas of ghostly white, indicative of the wind – both the real wind and the wind of the past seem to emanate from the history painting of the banner, linking up with the ‘highlights’ on the foliage, like a faded photograph from some long-forgotten album, and also rhyming with one of the two figures on the seat.
Both of these children wear sashes. One of them is ‘real’, a formal presence staring out at us. The other is incorporeal, a spectral emanation in white; a ghost from the past. The pair of them are surrounded by a rough scaffolding of positive/negative pin slashes, like a wooden trellis-frame; or a canopy without its covering. This frame serves, not only as a peepshow into their childhood world, but also as a way of yoking together the currency of Orangeism, imbibed at youth, in generations past, and present. Tiny red squiggles on the foliage, and on the banner, emphasise the potential for violence which is ‘in the air’ that these children breathe…
The head which appears on the banner will return in a number of images over the succeeding years, most notably in No Surrender
Dead centre, splitting the image, stands a uniformed policeman with a peaked cap. He is in profile, staring tight-lipped at theparade, feet apart in a rooted stance, symbol of law-and-order but also, unusually for the North, of impartiality, indicated by his dead centre stance. From the left a huge Lambeg drum, strapped to its unseen owner's chest, juts out across the body; but it has been rendered semi-transparent so that the outline shape of the policeman can still be seen.
On one level this drum functions as a musical instrument, therhythmic 'keeper of the beat'. But the unhinged arm, wielder of a timpani-like drum-stick, indicates not only the wardrum call, but also the potential of the drum-stick as a weapon. On another level the drum is like a Jasper Johns’ target with its concentric circles of black, white, black and white again for the heart of the target. The paradox is that the policeman who has often been seen, in the eyes of Catholics, as the defender of the Protestant tradition, has now become a target for his own Loyalist people (the police being a largely Protestant force.)
A festive crown of sightseers gaily decorate a walled roadside in the countryside. They are watching the parade which is approaching them, though we cannot see it. A knot of small children play at the roadside. Two rows of chevron bunting soar across the road, anchoring themselves in the trees. This festive decoration, which is in the shape of an elongated V, is echoed both by the markings on the roadway and the zig-zagging energy of scoring marks which seem to emanate from the oncoming parade. It’s a good example of latent violence of the Twelfth being made patent. The tiny curliques of red and blue gouache, linking up with the white sections of the image, provide a triumphalist gloss. The colours of the Union Jack, a flag which means one thing in England but something else in Northern Ireland. Is seen as an assertion of protestant loyalism, and a denigration of Gaelic patriotism.
Extracts from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England
Attention has tended to focus on Sloan's work relating to the marching season, and in particular the annual Twelfth of July Orange marches, to the extent that it can seem as if he has done nothing else. Yet this disproportionate degree of attention is perhaps understandable given the startling nature of the images. Several series of vigorously amended photographs offer a measured visual critique of loyalism, all the more remarkable for it's being directed at a social group which, with considerable justification, perceives itself as being under pressure, with which he might have been expected to identify, and without recourse to the standard terms in which the debate tends to be conducted.
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, January, 2001
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