Essay from 'Victor Sloan: Selected Works 1980-2000'
A Broken Surface: Victor Sloan's Photographic Work
There and then he decided to take photographs of the animals. But rather than trying to isolate them from their context, he deliberately viewed them entirely in terms of their context. The chimpanzees are virtually silhouettes, distanced, tenuous presences behind grubby perspex. The glare of the flash bounces uncomfortably back at us and the images have a worn, battered look about them.
Even if viewed as straightforward monochromatic prints, they disrupt the conventional aesthetics of the photograph. It's as if, iconoclastically, Sloan is making it difficult for us to see the nominal subject, the chimpanzee. But, perhaps to emphasize that he is interested in something more, even something besides that entirely, he works onto the surface of many of the prints with oil pastel, toner and even collage, counterpointing the aggressively jagged, random-seeming textures, and further challenging our habitual faith in the camera's promise of truthful clarity, and in the seamless integrity of the photographic surface.
He has since moved on from the zoo to treat an expanding range of paradigmatic social spaces and environments, including the resort town of Bangor, the new city of Craigavon, the Field in which the Orange Order marchers congregate, the circus and the sports stadium. In the light of everything he has done since Belfast Zoo, it is reasonable to conclude that the marks, the various kinds of interference, so to speak, that disrupt the optimal clarity of the image, make visible the usually invisible substrata, the sectarianism, the workaday tensions, the implicit threat of violence, underlying the apparent normality of life in Northern Ireland. More, there is perhaps the implication that just as the images sometimes seem to be consumed from within, specific political and cultural groupings in Northern Ireland might be poisoned by their own histories or their own historical myths. Equally, we can read even the spatial fabric of the prints as representative of a prototypical social space - initially the Belfast zoo, or, you could say, the zoo as Belfast, and subsequently the other kinds of emblematic environments - and the marks and strains wrought upon the photographic negatives and subsequent prints equate to tensions and breaks in the social fabric itself.
From the beginning, he has also sought to alter our relationship to the photographic image, it should be said, by consistently undercutting a predictable compositional aesthetic, formulating and emphasising the apparently casual, oblique qualities of his own imagery. Yet what this amounts to is, inevitably, partly a formalist achievement, in that it indicates a novel way of seeing, spectacularly so in the case of the Moving Windows series, for example, which are in formal terms outstanding. One could say that his general pictorial approach is to continually casualise the pictorial organisation of his subject matter, with the aim of pulling it out of whatever narrative and iconographic frame we might be tempted to slot it into, thus denying us our habitual sense of detachment and control.
Undertones of surveillance discernible in some of the Craigavon images come to the surface in Moving Windows, an extraordinary series made in 1985. Based on photographs taken over a period of about a fortnight, they form a kind of visual diary of Sloan's movements by car during that time. His idea was to try to get a sense of the "strange, unexpected architecture of things" as viewed through the car window - an increasingly common vantage point and also a highly pertinent perceptual filter. As it happened, over the fortnight he travelled around a lot and the images are a map of a landscape imbued with a personal history, from Portadown and Craigavon, where he lives, to Dungannon where he grew up, and to Bangor, where his wife's family live.
There are sinister connotations to the view from the car window, by no means only in relation to Northern Ireland but obviously in a heightened sense there, given the history of pervasive surveillance by a variety of agencies, waves of sectarian assassinations and hugely destructive car bombing campaigns. We are ambivalently positioned, prompted to question our own motives as observers. In fact, taking photographs from the car in Dungannon made him acutely aware of a reversal of viewpoint. His father ran a newsagents and sweet-shop in the town centre which was predictably, repeatedly targeted by bombers and he has vivid memories of being woken up in the middle of the night to clear up the debris of broken glass and confectionery.
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