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Londonderry, or Derry as it is familiarly know (through the respective appellations indicate the official protestant and catholic attitudes to the city) has been the definitive symbol of the Irish protestant’s determination to register a ‘No Surrender’ response to any threat, real or apparent, to their way of life. It is a symbol with a three - hundred year lineage. For the siege of Derry, one of the most famous stories in Irish history took place in 1689. It was a key point, not only in Irish history, but in a major European war. As J.G. Simms remarked in his authoritative The Siege of Derry (APCK, Dublin 1966, rep.1987) from an Irish point of view ‘it was a desperate effort made by the newer protestant colonists, English and Scots, to keep the position they had won in Ulster at the expense of the older inhabitants (i.e. the Gaels). The defenders endured terrible hardships, and the final result was in doubt till the very end of their long ordeal.’ (p.3)
As Gerry Burns has succinctly noted, this event can be viewed from two different but overlapping stances: ‘Depending on the point of view, what is now seen is an image either of heroic protestants holding out in desperate circumstances against hordes of murderously intentioned Roman Catholics, or of a foreign body of planters and colonists in retreat from one untenable position to another and in the process thwarting the honourable intensions of Irish nationalists.’ (Walls catalogue, p. 20)
The truth of the matter has always been unimportant: the mythology is what has counted. For example, as Robert Kee points out the protestant attitude to the British ships in the Foyle river, who either gave up Derry for lost, or else appeared to lack courage to burst the boom which was blockading the city, is a negative one, yet: ‘In reality, but for the arrival of British help, Derry would have surrendered: some within it were already negotiating for surrender when help arrived but the only reality which later history has allowed to count is that it did notsurrender, together with an awareness that however much the Northern Protestant may need British help he is also on his own. In that sense the Siege of Derry still goes on today though it was raised three centuries ago.’ (Kee, pp. 50-51).
In the time of James I, Derry was given to the city of London and its companies as part of the Ulster Plantation. They built the city, called it Londonderry with colonial appropriateness, and ringed it with a wall to keep out the Gaels. On two major occasions in the seventeenth century the city became a refuge. The first was in 1641 when a large part of the Ulster colony was swept off the lands on which it had settled by a rebellion of the Gaelic Irish Catholics. Atrocities were committed at the time but, as numerous historians have noted, these were greatly exaggerated - and it is the exaggerated versions which have been as important as the original atrocities themselves in conditioning the attitudes in Northern Ireland. To put it simply there is ‘no limit at all to the horrors that might have been or might still be inflicted’ on protestants in the collective mind of the Northern Ireland protestant (Kee, p. 44). It is worth remembering that in 1640 the protestants were outnumbered by the Catholics just as today, seen in an all-Ireland situation, they are likewise outnumbered.
In 1688 the city of Derry was again a refuge. Tension had been arising because of reports that protestants were being massacred by Catholics who were loyal to James II and thus against William of Orange. James was still the legitimate king but it was only a matter of time before he would be replaced by William. Thus, when a catholic garrison was sent in James’ name to replace a previous one, there began to be rumours of a massacre. Despite an official decision to let the troops into the city, thirteen apprentice boys took matters into their own hands and locked the gates. In December of that year a blockade started which lasted until the following July. To this day the memory of the siege is kept alive by the re-enactment of the earlier stages of the crisis. Symbolically the thirteen apprentice boys of Derry helped to save Ireland for William of Orange.
Victor Sloan’s series of eight photo-works entitled Walls can be viewed as enquiry into a life which is lived under a siege mentality. In terms of present day Derry the walls themselves are a visual emblem of a divided city. The title, Walls, like that of Drumming has multiple associations. Walls, like the poet Robert Frost’s fences, can be seen as conducive to good neighbourliness but they can also be seen as defensive. Furthermore, a walled city, in the tradition of the renaissance fortified city, is an anachronism in the technological age of the twentieth century. However, walls can be mental as well as physical, an emblem of a state of mind or a psychological perception rather than a physical manifestation. Just as an archaeological excavation of Hadrian’s Wall can reveal the layered cultural, social and historical deposits which enable us to understand the world of the Romans in the Britain of the time, so too do these images reveal the cultural, social, and historical accretions which pertain to the identity of Northern Ireland.
Magazine Gate, Derry, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours, 120cms x 193cms, 1989.
In Market Street for example there is a forceful conjunction of the past and the present. We view the solid mass of a section of the wall, stretching away diagonally into the distance. It is pierced by an arched gateway, topped with balustrading. Architecturally speaking, the wall represents the Old Order: a pattern from the past which is redolent of Roman organization from the days of the empire until the Renaissance (Derry’s original ground plan has much in common with Roman city planning, being divided into clearly-labelled quarters). This bastion of the old order is yoked into the twentieth century by the addition of corrugated iron sheeting and barbed wire which are the army’s contribution to community policing. The sheeting and the barbed wire run along the top of the wall, reinforcing the notion of the wall as a bulwark or bastion which divides people. As an act of aesthetic vandalism this is comparable to defacing a medieval street-façade with neon strip-lighting and advertising hoardings, but aesthetics are irrelevant in a street-fighting argument. In tandem with the corrugated sheeting are the police land rovers which flank each side of the archway. A police and/or army presence is a necessary adjunct to a festive parade.
Marching in between the landrover, and entering the darkness of the archway is the tail-end of a parade, a gaggle of youngsters bringing up the rear. Like their parents before them, they will continue to uphold the traditions, their tunnel vision neatly suggested by the darkened archway into which they walk. One of the striking aspects of this image is the way normal contextual referents have been stripped away. We do not see the wall in relation to the city. The wall is the city, closed down and fortified as if 1989 were a rerun of 1689 when the apprentice boys barred entry to the city to the forces of James II. This sense of enclosure, of refuge, is both heightened and undermined by the artist’s interventions. Instead of blue skies suggesting infinity of possibilities, Sloan has created an oppressive blanket of markings, gouache and watercolour which covers the area behind the wall like a lid on a saucepan. The scoring calligraphic slashes, in places like a parody of the barbed wire tracery, encircles the image, reaching a frenzy above the marchers as well as alongside the walls, seemingly generated like static electricity from the ‘clouds’ above
This sense of being oppressed and oppressive, of being squeezed into a narrow area both physically and mentally, is approached from a markedly different perspective in Still under Siege in which a huge slogan is viewed frontally. Band members with their pipes and drums are marching past while in front of them, but with their backs to us, leaning against a wall, are the onlookers. But this is the world of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The image has been reversed (history goes backwards) so that the legend ‘Londonderry/West Bank Loyalists/Still Under Siege’ is seen as a mirror image. Written backwards it looks at first glance like some East European language. The participants are communicating with themselves only. Backs to the wall, they are sandwiched between the wall and the banner, and as we view them we observe the appearance of the cracks in their universe.
With Cupwinners and Bonfire, the baseline in each case being a photographic image in negative, a cross-connection is made between two forms of nationalism; two versions of identity. Cupwinners depicts a sideways view of Saint Patrick’s Accordion Band, posed in front of a shelf full of trophies underneath which are their accordions and a bass drum stenciled with their name. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is closely associated with Gaelic culture. In Bonfire a triangular formation of youths pose in front of a bonfire which has as its centrepiece a placard which reads: ‘Maggie’s in Dublin’, a reference to Thatcher’s espousal of the Anglo-Irish agreement which allows the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. While the drum in Cupwinners asserts the primacy of Gaelic culture, the placard implacably asserts the opposite: Maggie’s Dublin is about to go up in smoke. Both of these images have a stark apocalyptic intensity. In both cases the human beings have black slashes across their eyes as if to indicate blindness. In both cases the outside world does not exist. Bonfire is a literal depiction of conflagration in which the participants are enveloped in the flames but seem unaware of the fact while Cupwinners is enveloped in a dense scribbled thicket of calligraphy beneath which the figures glow in a blinding flash as if in the moment before extinction. Everyone is under siege. Each community holds fast to its cultural identity. Yet ironically, as these twin images seem to suggest, both communities have much in common with each other.
What do we see? Yet again architecture is used as a metaphor for a state of mind. Here the Wall is represented by the foursquare Romanesque arches topped with balustrading: an image of stability, rootedness and the Old Order: an image of times past. On the original photographic negative the marchers were piercing through the triple archway, but Sloan’s interventions have hemmed them in – though they are looking outwards – in an embodiment of the siege mentality. Looking in from the outside is a representative of the British militia – a neat irony in that the Orangemen see themselves loyal to the British crown yet in the image it is the army which seems to be restraining them. This idea is reinforced by the heavy cross-hatched ‘netting’ which the artist had added. It covers not only the triple archway but also the entire area surrounding the bridge so that the known world seems to consist only of the bridge itself, and the people underneath and immediately in front of it.
Extract from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England
Observation Point, Derry, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 124cms x 188cms, 1989. Not included in original Walls exhibition - first shown in Victor Sloan: Walk, Toskanische Saulenhalle, Augsburg, Germany, 2004.
Anniversaries are not about the past, they are about the present. They are events which establish, affirm and, at times, re-order contemporary social relationships through the manipulation of the discourse of history. Anniversaries are dependant upon this discourse but they are different from it. They may be used as a pretext for the re-writing and re-ordering of history, but the difference lies in the attempt to break out of the social limitations of that discourse. The traditional, linear, mechanisms of history, the text and the tutorial are enhanced and displaced by the advent of the television documentary, the exhibition, the march and the parade. On the one level, the narrow field created by an anniversary enables certain elements of the historical discourse to become more commonly known through the use of different media. On one level, certain kinds of anniversaries are attempts to transcend the historical discourse. To replace history with history, discourse with experience.
The noun “anniversary” is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary (1983) as, “The day on which some interesting event is annually celebrated. ME.2 The celebration which takes place on such a date; orig. a mass in memory of someone on the day of his death”. There are three distinct areas defined here. Firstly, a numerical system by which the beginning, length and division of the year is fixed, the calendar. Secondly, a historical event, a death, a battle, a siege, the storming of a prison. Fragments of historical debris picked out and given a meaning in discourse. Thirdly, a contemporary event. The event is made up of elements. In the case of Orange parades, speeches, the route which is taken, the public display of symbols and regalia, loud band music. These elements combine to form a language with its own dynamism, function and logic. A language whose legitimacy lies in its relationship to the written discourse of history.
The relationship is not fixed, but shifting. Lord Macaulay’s “History of England” explains the history of the Siege of Derry (1689) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690) as acts of great significance. In the history which is celebrated by the Orange Order, this significance is affirmed. Macaulay’s history was published originally in 1848 and was last reprinted in1957 Ian Paisley the Democratic Unionist M.P. and churchman recently bemoaned, “the 15 volume ‘Oxford History of England’, a series hailed as ‘the most authoritative general history of England’ dismisses the event (the siege) in some dozen lines.” The shifting ground of “authoritative” history enhances the importance of certain events and diminishes that of others. This is a disconcerting experience for those groups who celebrate events whose importance is diminished. This shift undermines the legitimacy of the act of celebration. On another level, the elements which make up history may be re-ordered as to change the meaning of the anniversary from that proposed by the celebrants. The most extreme example in this context is the statement on the tercentenary issued by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Their press officer described the struggle initiated by the 13 apprentice boys in Derry as “an act of truly revolutionary self-determination which can only be admired.” These shifting relationships between contemporaries and fragments of history are fought over to legitimise the anniversary celebration. The celebration acts to secure that legitimacy in the public domain.
These celebrations observed and recorded in numerous photographs by Victor Sloan in Londonderry on the 12th July 1988, were organised by the Orange Order to celebrate the victory of King William III of England at the Battle of the Boyne. The exhibition will take place in 1989, the tercentenary of the siege of Derry. The relationship between the Orange Order, the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry is problematical. The cause of the problem can be seen in the myths of the Orange Order. One particular story can serve as an illustration. During the Siege of Derry, the Jacobite forces shelled the besieged city from an orchard belonging to a Protestant colonist called Strong. This historical fact is the opening through which the meaning of the siege as a contemporary signifier can be seen. “Strong contributed £1,000 to the (Derry) garrison’s expenses. His descendent, Sir Norman Strong, in 1980 still held at his house, Tynan Abbey, County Armagh, two I.O.U.’s for the loan, signed by Colonel Mitchelburne, and reckoned that with unpaid compound interest since 1689 they must now be worth some £60 million. In 1981 the IRA broke into Tynan Abbey, murdered Sir Norman and his son, and burnt the house.” The importance of this story cannot be underestimated; it appears constantly in the account of the siege. Firstly, it illustrates the dominant relationship recognized in Orangeism, that of objective lines of decent and consanguinity. It is an almost linear relationship; the years can literally be counted up in terms of compound interest. Secondly, it relates the struggle of the past directly to that of today.
This conservative linear history creates a problem for the Orange Order. It demands an account of the 100 years that lie between the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne, the events in which it claims its roots, and its actual foundation at Armagh on 21st December 1795. Its very existence as an established order represents a break in the linear tradition. This break must be repaired by Orange historians. In 1988 Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist M.P. for East Belfast published “Their Cry was ‘No Surrender’ – An account of the siege of Londonderry.” In it, he talks of the “soul” of history. Ian Paisley, in his introduction, takes great care to place the book firmly in an empirical tradition of history, but continued to talk of the “spirit” that informs it. The “soul” and the “spirit” are the abstract routes, by which the history of the Orange Order can transcend the discontinuities apparent in its commanding metaphor of linear descent.
In 1866 Richard Lilburn, Editor of the Armagh Guardian and an Orangeman wrote, “Orangeism; its origin, constitution and objects.” “Orangeism” becomes the historical glue which welds the events of 1688-89 to the history of the Orange Order. He explains the events in terms of a linear series of causes and effects, and the twin oppositions of Protestant/Catholic: Constitutional monarchy/Absolute monarchy. The leap is then taken to the establishment of the Orange Order in 1795. This involves not only a leap in time, but also a leap out of the recognisable discourse of European history. Lilburn states, unequivocally, that the causes of the Orders foundation are to be found in the French Revolution. The French Revolution is not described in terms in which Thomas Paine or even Edmund Burke could understand. It is, in fact, “The second great struggle for Popery.” Exactly the same “Popery that had sought to undermine Protestantism in 17th century Ireland.
The establishment of the Orange Order occurs during that period of history when the oppositions of Lilburn’s historical analysis are being undermined in both the context of Europe and Ireland. The United Irish slogan “Ireland will only be free when the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest” cuts across those oppositions. Yet it was through absolute/constitutional monarchy; Catholic/Protestant that the ruling classes in Ireland had established themselves. Through the maintenance of those oppositions that they were determined to keep it.
Resistance to the ideas of the French Revolution was general throughout Europe. Those ideas had to be translated into the political language which pre-dated them. Therefore, in Ireland the effect of those ideas could not escape the Catholic/Protestant opposition. It was, and is, the aim of the Orange Order to explain all events in these terms. To do so, it must diminish the importance of new oppositions thrown up by discourses other than the religious; bourgeois/aristocratic, working class/middle class, male/female. Alongside this aim is the need to continue to order society, not in terms of man’s relationship to man, but in terms of mans relationship to God. The Orange Order is a mechanism to achieve those aims. The marching season, with its climax on July 12th (the twelfth) is a major part of that mechanism.
There is no carnival which does not have some element of political import, nor is there an anniversary parade which does not have some element of carnival. Carnival is hedonistic; it is about how people enjoy themselves, not who they are. An anniversary parade is about who people are. The nature and the strictness of the relationship between these two elements is revealing. It reveals the political meaning of the celebration and the contemporary importance of that meaning. An Orange parade is organised by the local Lodge of the Order. In the country districts, this allows for considerable flexibility as to where the march may take place. In Derry and Belfast, the marches tend to be organised along roughly the same route every year. The various lodges from a district will raise money to pay for bands which march along the route. Money is also required for the traditional dress of the members. A colourful sash, which takes its form from 17th century dress, is worn over a modern suit with bowler hat and gloves, which date back to the Edwardian period when the Orange Order was instrumental in the resistance to Home Rule. This form of dress could be described as a uniform but strictly speaking is not. The Orange Order, despite having need of the symbolic power of a uniform must avoid appearing as a private army. If it were generally perceived as a private army, it could be divisive within the Order itself. As importantly, it could provide a pretext for state intervention into its affairs. The bands march and the men walk behind large, colourful and attractive banners. These are another major expense. It is important to realise that the financial element is in itself symbolic. It symbolizes the wealth which the Orange Order can muster.
The banners commemorate significant events or people in the history of the Order. These latter tend increasingly to be Orangemen who have been killed as members of the security forces by the IRA. As they are carried around the walls of Derry, these banners are testament to a symbolic relationship. The walls today are surmounted by modern military installations as they have been since 1969. The Greek revival architecture of the gates has been defaced by barbed wire erected to prevent grenade attacks on the security forces below. This barbed wire was erected to protect the police and army from attack, from the walls. This in itself is indicative of the peculiar position of the Orange parades as they march around the walls. Derry is not the same city that held out for so long against the forces of King James. Then it was a small Protestant planter town. During the 19th century, the industrial revolution drew Catholics workers into its environs. The 1871 census confirmed the religious denomination of the town as 11,421 Protestant, 13,821 Catholic.
This bright and noisy musical parade marches along a route worked out in advance with the police. The route is symbolic for it is a test of power of the Orange in manipulating the state. The police have the power to ban marches. If a Lodge wants to march through a Catholic area, the test is two-fold. Whose wishes will the state uphold, those of the marcher or those of the local inhabitants? If the march is allowed to go ahead, will the local Catholics react? Will they ignore the invasion of their territory by a large number of well-organised and noisy Protestants, or will they react noisily or even violently themselves? The relationship between those celebrating and those not celebrating is all-important. The defining element of the relationship is fixed before the parades have begun. The rules of the Orange Order explicitly prohibit Catholics from becoming members. Only Orangemen may walk in the parade.
Once the parade has passed along the route, it arrives at the “Field”. At the “Field”, the bandsmen and the walkers rest and listen to speeches made by senior members of the Order, Unionist politicians and Protestant clergymen. Resolutions are carried. The Londonderry Sentinel (19/7/89) “Resolutions focus on Loyality, Faith and State.” Loyality to the British Monarchy, faith in a Protestant God and the coherence of the Northern Irish state. The element that runs through all the speeches and resolutions is that the struggle for these values is the same as that undertaken by King William at the Battle of the Boyne and the people of Derry throughout the siege.
Thus, the Orange Order presents itself as it marches around the walls and through the streets of Derry on July 12th. It is observed by its own members and by those, it sees as its natural followers. It is observed by those citizens of Derry who are excluded by religion from taking part and by those who simply chose not to. Some observe it with indifference, some avoid it, some ignore it. It is re-presented by the media, local, national and international. It is re-presented by artists such as Victor Sloan.
The representations in the newspapers depends on how those papers view the Orange Order. The Derry Journal produces two issues a week. During the week of the Twelfth, it had no photographic coverage of the Orange parades. It had only two reports concerning the Twelfth. The first was contained in a historical section entitled “Chronicle and Comment”. This described the anniversary of Hitler’s move on Danzig. It went on to relate the events in Derry during the same period. One a speech by a Protestant clergyman concerning the Protestant falling birthrate, the other a speech by a Unionist M.P. at the “Field” telling Orangemen not to employ Catholics. The second report was about Gregory Campbell, a Democratic Unionist councilor on Derry City Council. He was speaking to reporters about the meaning of the siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. He claimed that the events of 1689-90 secured the freedom of Protestant and Catholic alike; therefore, to celebrate them today should be seen as a threat to no one.
The other local newspaper, the Londonderry Sentinel is published once a week. Their coverage of the Twelfth celebrations was comprehensive. There was a front-page photograph with a full four inside pages given over to photographs and reports. The photographs could be placed in four main categories. “Team photographs” of bands; the progress of the march; sentimental family groups; Orangemen relaxing after a hard days marching. A headline bore the message – PROTESTANTS FACE THE SAME TODAY AS IN 1690.
The national newspaper coverage of the Twelfth was dependent on the ability to see the Orange marches as directly and simply part of “the Troubles”. The possibility of exciting photographs of street violence was promised at Keady, Co. Armagh. The local Orange Order district had decided to hold its march in this mainly Catholic town. Representations had been made by the inhabitants of the town to have the march re-routed. These had been turned down by the police and the march was to go ahead. A large number of local and foreign pressmen descended on the town in anticipation of a good story and even better pictures. In the event, there was no trouble. Despite a great deal of press interest, very little actual coverage resulted. Only the Independent carried a front-page photograph the next day. An Orangeman lay in an ungainly fashion across the grass at Keady.
These instances of photographic coverage, or non-coverage, by the press suggest that only those papers which were editorially at ease with the aims of the Orange Order could respond using realist representation. In the Londonderry Sentinel the photography carried several important messages: the importance of family relationships to the Order: the organisational strength of the Order, carried in the many photographs of marching men; the fact that the Twelfth was enjoyable. None of these were at odds with how the Order would like to be seen. The Sentinel’s headlines placed the subjects in a context both political and social which justified the event. A reported speech from the “field”, IRA “FASCISTS AND GANGSTERS”. A general summary of the celebrations – SUNSHINE SWELTERS IN A SEA OF COLOUR. The London press had a more ambiguous attitude. Initially expecting comforting pictures of a foreign society in strife, reassuring the home based readers of their own stability, they were to be disappointed. No paper save the Independent chose to cover the parade as “colour”. Since its recent foundation, the Independent has sought a reputation for stylish photography. The Keady photograph is undeniably a “good photograph”. It employs the irony and paradox typical of the Independent when it covers subjects with which it has an uneasy relationship. Satirising the Orange Order’s ideal of the Ulster Protestant, as upstanding, decent and respectable, with a photograph of a sprawling Orangeman allowed it to cover the parades without simply projecting the positive image presented by those parading. Comparing this approach to the non-coverage of the Derry Journal suggests that it requires a certain distance from the subject to be acceptable. The pressing and immediate political importance of the parades in Derry rules out the ironical approach for those opposed to their meaning. Press photography is not a plastic media. Anniversarial parades present a simple and positive public image of the celebrants. Realistic press photography offers, with only rare exceptions, a stark choice between coverage and non-coverage. This choice is determined by the editorial stance of the media towards the celebration and celebrants.
The difference between an artist and a newspaper photographer lies in the process of production. The news photographer supplies raw material to a process, which demands photographs that convey a simple set of meanings in a unified dynamic image. The images must be produced at high speed. This speed imposes a uniform process of development controlled by an agent other than the photographer. The editorial process of selection is in the hands of a third agent. All three agents are working within a system defined by the need to produce profit. The photographic artist works within a system determined by profit but one in which the effects of this motive are distorted by state intervention. This distortion allied with the difference in the way an artist is exploited, and exploits, for profit give the artist greater freedom and control at all levels of the process. This freedom is not inherently beneficial nor is it infinite. The danger is that the products of photographic art can produce a mass of blinding kaleidoscope images just as unenlightening as the simplicities of photojournalism. Victor Sloan produces his work by intervening at every stage of the process of production. He takes a large number of monochrome 35mm negatives. He then selects those he will work on. Using a magnifying glass, he works directly on the negative, scratching it with a pin, painting it with paint or black ink. This is then printed. He then paints the print with gouache or watercolour.
Sloan’s technique of producing images ”writ large” on the photograph immediately draws comparison with realist photography as a whole, in the gallery as much as in the press. It is because his subject matter overlaps with that of the media that his work contrasts with photojournalism. The striking difference is the level of commitment Victor Sloan has shown to photographing Orange Parades over a number of years. The media covers the activities of the Orange Order only when they correspond to the construction of “the troubles”. The interest at Keady was indicative of this. The parades as covered by Sloan are not dependent on an understanding of “the troubles”. He appears to study the parades as a powerful and important element of Northern Irish society. The Orange parades, whether in the countryside around Portadown or within the walls of Derry, are not simple subjects. Sloan seems to claw his way through a complex process of production toward an image that convey the meaning of the parades and his reaction to them. This process has produced a mode of representation that is equal to the subject. It is equal to the subject because it does not attempt to be so. The complexity of the finished images belie any attempt to read them as final or absolute statements.
The excitement of Victor Sloan’s work lies in the difficulty with which the viewer is faced in trying, if only for a moment, to produce a single all embracing statement about it. In Derry City, Portadown, in London and beyond, the power of simplicity, whether as a saleable commodity or a comforting lie is all pervasive. In such a world, an artist who attempts to see the complexities and invites his viewers to do the same is involved in no parlour game, but an act as revolutionary as thirteen young boys shutting a gate.
Extract from Victor Sloan: Walls by James Odling-Smee, published by the Orchard Gallery, Derry, October 1989
Londonderry Westbank Loyalists, Derry, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 124cms x 188cms, 1989. Not included in original Walls exhibition - first shown in Victor Sloan: Walk, Toskanische Saulenhalle, Augsburg, Germany, 2004.
When history with all its bias and fabrication has been absorbed into the bloodstream from birth, there is no hope that it can be unlearned. A sense of historical consciousness among Irish people in general is very high, but much of such history is far from factual and will remain so until social change undermines its instrumental function. The long predicted demythologising of Irish history has been a long time in gestation and still seems a long way off.
What then are we to make of an exhibition such as the one currently on show at the Orchard Gallery in Londonderry? “Walls” is the work of Victor Sloan, one of Ireland’s leading photographic artists, and at first glance might appear to be a rather clichéd exploration of part of Northern Ireland’s historico-political arena. Here we have Orangemen, those stout defenders of Protestant liberties, interminably on the march, banners flying, and drums beating. Here we have Derry’s famous walls, in themselves a cultural image for both the city’s divided communities. In a visual environment where most public architecture is so commonplace as to become almost invisible, the walls of Derry stand heavily charged with significance in relation to the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants, and indeed the lives of all of the people of Ireland.
What can an artist do with images such as these in order to get us to look beneath the surface of what is being presented? Indeed, is it even possible for an artist working with such strong local images to put across a statement or series of statements, which will have any kind of universal appeal? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes’. The images on show here are no mere clichés. In the artist’s hands the clichés have become subverted and in turn have become a commentary on the divisions which bedevil Irish society – the ‘walls’ that divide the two local communities also divide the past from the present. This in itself is an ironic comment on the Irish tendency to live past history in the present.
In many ways ‘Walls’ is a view of life lived under siege. In the city of Derry, the Protestant minority live their lives under siege from the city’s Roman Catholic majority; in Northern Ireland itself, the Catholic majority are under siege from the Protestant majority; while in Ireland as a whole the Protestant minority are under siege from the country’s Catholic majority – a siege within a siege within a siege!
Victor Sloan’s powers of observation, which have been clearly demonstrated in a number of previous exhibitions, present this sense of tension combined with vulnerability with considerable force. Many of the images that he uses, while at first glance appearing commonplace or superficial, are far from simple. On various levels the walls which divide the communities in Northern Ireland are historical, cultural, political or, sometimes, merely fanciful. But the walls of division which exist between individuals, groups or communities in society today are certainly not peculiar to the Irish situation and this is something the artist clearly wishes us to recognise. Victor Sloan is a former painter who now works on 35mm negatives, scraping out part of an image and using paint or ink directly on to the negative. When the negative has been printed up, he uses toners and watercolours in order to highlight and heighten aspects of the final printed image. It is a flexible technique and, in this case, a surprisingly effective one.
Sloan’s images, both the obvious and the obscure, highlight his concern for the subtle disposition of cultural layers. There is a fluid use of time and space in the juxtaposition of historical and modern references, hints of a past culture subverted and transposed by modern influences. Above all, there is a sense of history, if not time itself, having been transcended.
‘Walls’ is a fascinating exhibition that deserves to be widely seen. It marks a further important step in the development of an artist who clearly has the ability to break new ground. It will be very interesting indeed to see which direction he takes after a series of exhibitions that have explored various aspects of Northern Irish political life through images which are both multi-layered and concise, oblique and yet accessible. ‘Walls’ gives us plenty of examples of Sloan’s technical virtuosity but this never allowed to overwhelm or intrude unnecessarily, and overall the multiplicity of technique serves to draw the viewer in and to add a continual element of surprise.
Victor Sloan - Walls by Gerry Burns, Art Review, London, 17 October 1989
Resting at St Columbs Cathedral, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 124cms x 193cms, 1989. Not included in original Walls exhibition - first shown in Victor Sloan: Walk, Toskanische Saulenhalle, Augsburg, Germany, 2004.
As the events of the last thirty years in Northern Ireland have proved with depressing clarity, for both loyalists and nationalists the commemorative calendar is never just a schedule of events, it is an extraordinarily powerful force in itself, a mechanism confirmative of, variously, steadfastness and resistance, a readymade pattern of strategic dates against which to plot provocative gestures. Yet it would be naive to think that today's factions are haplessly condemned to endlessly replay tribal enmities of the past.
The Ulster Museum's exhibition Icons of Identity went some way to demonstrating how, rather than being determined by fixed iconic representations from the past, today's groups continually re-cast those icons to accord with their current ideological needs, conveniently overlooking contradictions and inconsistencies in the cause of maintaining suitably homogeneous myths. Commemorations are, as James Odling-Smee put it "events which establish, affirm and at times re-order contemporary social relationships through the manipulation of the discourse of history."
The past is continually reinvented to suit the needs of the present, is even perhaps plucked out of the category of the merely historical and enshrined as part of a sanctified tradition. It often seems that in the context of Northern Ireland, notions of heritage and tradition can be regarded as nothing more than convenient holdalls into which useful and sometimes apparently quite random ideological padding can be arbitrarily crammed.
"As a number of observers have recognised," Ian McBride writes in Memory and National Identity in Northern Ireland, charting evolving perceptions of the nature and status of commemorative events "the ritualised parades of the marching season constitute an attempt to overcome the ideological contradictions of an embattled 'Ulster': with flags and banners, bands, bonfires and marches, Protestants have symbolically asserted their territorial presence in the absence of a stable national identity."
Sloan's marching season images address the ideological contradictions in a number of ways. The Orange parades are celebratory events, with elements of the carnivalesque. Some commentators, including apologists for the Orange Order, have argued that they are essentially good-natured folk festivals and should not be read as sectarian and triumphal. Yet underlying the good humour are problematic issues. The drumming is territorial, the paraphernalia martial and the peripheral events disturbing.
In this work Sloan makes incredibly dense, rich surfaces, sometimes reminiscent of Anselm Kiefer's worked-over photographs, and, for him, unprecedented in terms of the sheer level of attack on the integrity of the straight photographic image. He scratches directly into the negatives, in gestures magnified through enlargement, as well as working onto the surfaces of the prints with bleaches, toners and paint. Much of this work was, he remarks, "About anger, the marks are violent and it's partly that they pick up on the violence and anger both coming from and directed at the subject. They are about frustration on several levels." Sloan's own frustration is clearly part of this equation, but it should be emphasised that he steers clear of any opportunistic or facile condemnation of loyalism.
The underlying thrust of his argument would seem to be the need to acknowledge the uncertainty of the future rather then a doomed attempt to live in the fixity of an endlessly replayed past. In Walls, this closing down of the future is vividly encapsulated in the conceptual grid that takes the place of the Apprentice Boys' action in closing the city gates, initiating the Siege of Derry. If Unionist politics is nothing more than a blank re-enactment of closure then it has, literally, no future.
Apart from the overall effects engendered by the sustained assault on photographic convention, the marching season imagery is packed with pointed detail, like the lambeg drum framed to resemble a target being brought to bear on an RUC constable, or the scratched line that circles a traffic sign reading GIVE WAY, or the image of a young girl, recalling the girl on the Bangor promenade, who is being initiated into a pattern of behaviour and dogmatic belief. But, as Sloan presents it, every confirmatory gesture is invested with a contradictory, destructive undertow.
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