Ambiguous Images

Ambiguous Images

Mairtín Crawford visits the Ormeau Baths Gallery to look at the work of photographer Victor Sloan

Photographer Victor Sloan has become known as something of an ambiguously critical chronicler of the Orange Order and the marching season although, as the current exhibition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast shows, there is a lot more to him than that.

Born in Dungannon in 1945 Sloan studied at the Belfast College of Art and has been exhibiting in various places for the past 20 years. Selected Works 1980-200 is the first major exhibition to explore the whole range of his photographic practice, representing work from 18 exhibitions.

From even the earliest work it is clear that Sloan avoids the photo-realism approach so often associated with photographic representations of the North, instead opting for a more experimental approach. The photographs are often scratched, treated with tints, inks and gouache, cropped and blown up out of proportion. Often separate images are overlaid on one another, where ghostlike, amorphous shapes and people contest for space (and meaning). The effect is disconcerting, hinting at confusion, chaos and the shifting, subjective nature of interpretation.

His exhibition Zoo, 1983, emerged from a family trip to Belfast Zoo. What were intended to be family snapshots of a day out ended up as a series of disconcerting, claustrophobic pictures of, mainly, chimpanzees. The pictures tell a sad story of displacement and alienation: monkeys trapped behind panes of Perspex, themselves scratched and covered with graffiti, smeared with ice cream. This is replicated in the images where Sloan disrupts the conventional aesthetics of the form: the subjects, in this case the chimps, are hard to see. Sloan is clearly redefining the notion of the truth of the camera.

Reflection on the Zoo images Sloan says “Someone once told me that you can tell a lot about a society by the state of its zoo.” This clearly shows a social conscience at work, made evident again in another earlier series, Vietnamese Boat People. The photographs, mainly silver gelatin prints treated with toner and watercolour, are dark, eerie, sometimes disturbing. Displacement and isolation are again to the fore here as Sloan takes us on a journey through the new home - Craigavon - of the immigrants. Another exhibition, Craigavon, explores this further, using the notion of the new town to explore questions of identity and belonging in the town planners’ dream gone wrong.

The idea of photographic representation is further compromised and deconstructed in Moving Windows, a travelogue of non-images taken from inside the photographer’s car as he navigates the physical, and by implication, political and emotional, landscape of the North. Subject is relegated to the point of non-existence and the idea of photographer as observer becomes central throwing up ideas relating to surveillance and study - secret images taken in the dark, the rain, where nothing is really discernable beyond the windscreen (a lens?).

The work relating to the Orange Order and associated marches and rituals, is quietly critical but from the point of exasperation, not from an opposing ideological position. Marchers are seen walking through terrain that is deliberately obfuscated with the use of heavy scratches on the prints along with paint and toners, suggesting the idea of the past as a jail or trap. Images are superimposed one on another, subjects are placed in contradictory positions and the overall impression is relics of the past parading back into the past. The heavy scratching define physical space , almost like bars in a cage - faces are obfuscated, territory and place indeterminate. In later images which depict the Drumcree stand-off violence is perpetrated onto photographic paper reflecting the violence already visited upon the subjects: burnt out houses, empty graffiti covered bus shelters, ruined tarmacadam, heavy security.

Sloan’s work is impressive in both its technical approach to the whole aesthetic notion of the photographic image and in its range. It both disrupts and redefines the notion of the camera as arbiter of truth while successfully allowing the deconstructed subject to act as both moral and political art. Pertinently it questions our perceptions and quietly encourages us to redefine our entire world view.

Mairtín Crawford, Fortnight, March, 2001