A Broken Surface

Essay from 'Victor Sloan: Selected Works 1980-2000'

A Broken Surface: Victor Sloan's Photographic Work

In 1983 Victor Sloan paid a visit to Belfast Zoo with his children. He brought a camera to take some family snaps, but he ended up taking a different, more troubled and troubling kind of photograph. He found himself standing looking in sadness and dismay at the chimpanzees trapped behind a pane of scratched, scarred, battered perspex, its cloudy surface smeared with ice cream and marked by graffiti. As he observes now: "Someone said that you can tell a lot about a society by the state of its zoo."

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.

These days, of course, that faith has been substantially undermined by our awareness of the ease with which images can be manipulated, but at the time Sloan's approach was fairly radical, and even now the fact that he continues to emphasise the manual, physical gesture, pointing up roughnesses and discontinuities in the pictorial fabric rather than trying to convince us of its unitary, smooth verisimilitude, is striking. It is true that he had studied painting, which presumably emboldened him in working directly onto the photographic surface, and it is accurate to say that his photographic work has substantially consisted of a hybridisation of painting and photography. He was also conscious that, in exhibiting photographs in an art context, people might dismiss them as being "just photographs", and he instinctively wanted to make that kind of response difficult, to present the viewer with something photographic that was not exactly a photograph.

In fact the distressed surface of the perspex in his zoo pictures is a prototype for the kind of photographic print that has continued to fascinate him, a surface that will not, so to speak, let us be, that obtrudes between us and any habitual, privileged relationship with the image, a surface that not only eats corrosively into the nominal image, but also becomes in itself a different kind of image: a difficult, uncomfortable image that we cannot easily assimilate. We might draw from this the implication that, figuratively speaking, everything we see is distorted, embedded as it is in its inevitable matrix of cultural meaning.

In his photographs of chimpanzees he hit on something else that has been of enduring relevance to virtually all of his subsequent work. That is what might be termed the notion of theatre or performance and the linked ideas of repetition and ritual. He goes on to develop these ideas in a specific and personal way, but they are clearly linked to the Post-modernist diagnosis, extending back to the writings of Guy Dabord in the 1960s, of contemporary life as constituting a society of the spectacle.

Numerous theorists have since elaborated this thesis to develop varieties of a model of Late Capitalist society in which, caught up in a process of rampant commodification, we find ourselves inhabiting a depthless, necessarily ahistorical space in which pretty much everything - including art, culture and history itself - has been robbed of substance and is available to us only in the form of commodified representations - as spectacle. Our involuntary role is that of consumers in a global marketplace. History, for example, might be re-packaged as a nebulously defined category of heritage and our experience of it reduced to parodic theme park encounters.

However, a recurrent, forcefully argued feature of Sloan's work is the implication that the intractable textures of history, in the form of unresolved ideological conflicts, questions and contradictions, will tend to break through the apparently depthless skin of spectacle to which it has been confined. He pursues this argument relentlessly, predominantly in relation to theatricalised representations of history, and this would include history codified as tradition, in Northern Ireland. Far from being in any sense neutral or benign, such representations, he implies, are always ideologically grounded, ideologically motivated and engaged, always tied to the unfolding politics of the present and bound up with questions about the future.

The chimpanzees in their cage are on show. The contemporary debate on the ethics of zoos relates to the contested point where elucidation shades over into entertainment, and to the specious presumption of superiority, all issues pertinent, as it happens, to human societies. It also touches on the conditions of captivity. The thing about animals confined to zoos is that their lives have, particularly in the past, been reduced to impoverished, repetitive parodies of their existence in the wild. Sloan photographed various kinds of animals in the zoo, but felt himself drawn back to the images of chimps because, as he says, we relate to monkeys, we see ourselves in them. The caged animal, its life recast and displayed as a theatrical, reductive parody of itself, is a metaphor for the individual immersed in the codified, ritualised world of a social and cultural framework.

These ideas, of a sceptical, iconoclastic impulse, of a corrosive filter as a condition of perception, of social existence viewed in terms of theatrical parody and performance, and of the related role of repetition and ritual, to a great extent underlie a huge and what is on the face of it a remarkably complex and heterogeneous body of work to date. Another central idea also emerges in the zoo images. It does so indirectly, and it is elsewhere indirectly, if pointedly, applied. It relates to notions of faith, bad faith and betrayal. In the photographs, the chimpanzees are unmistakable icons of betrayal, victims of a misplaced faith in human beneficence. The question of what faith really is, and who has the right to profess it, surfaces again in Sloan's images.

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.

In a certain sense his photographs of the promenade at Bangor, made in 1984, can be seen as a modest continuation and development of the zoo pictures. The holiday resort is a contrived setting in which people indulge in certain predetermined recreational activities and behaviours. Sloan concentrates on one repetitious habitual activity enacted by out-of-season visitors, that of walking up and down the promenade. This gives him the unchanging, bleak backdrop of the winter sea, a stage against which figures come and go, and are glimpsed obliquely. He particularly cherishes one composition in which a little girl is being pulled along by her mother, partly because it corresponds to what he was trying to do visually, and partly, one is tempted to conclude, because of the implicit motif, of a child being coerced or cajoled into a set pattern of behaviour.

From the relatively contained settings of the zoo and the holiday resort, there is quite a leap to the paradigmatic idea of a new city. If the zoo is Belfast, Craigavon, a utopian ideal of Modernist planning projected onto the map without particular reference to the existing historical grain of the land, including the loyalist and nationalist concentrations it encompasses, could be contemporary Northern Ireland itself. In a slightly surreal way, the communications grid of the still largely theoretical new city is overlaid on a predominantly rural and, until relatively recently, functioning agrarian landscape.

Sloan's images, printed in blue - perhaps a reference to Ian Paisley's utopian evocation of the blue skies of Ulster - concentrate on what might be described as the actuality of an idealised version of suburban life envisaged by the planners, on civic services, amenities and events. In fact his subjects are positively conscientious in their communal ordinariness: a bus shelter, senior citizens being transported by minibus, a playground, a funfair, a parade, a fireworks display. Yet the more ordinary, the more affirmatively civic they seem to be, the more the images are shot through with a strange unease.

This emerges in a number of ways. We are, for example, ambiguously distanced from the playground, cast in a slightly disturbing role, one reinforced by the odd markings on the photograph, some of which suggest the indications of bullet holes made by forensic investigators at the scene of a crime. The minibus is a reminder that the lay-out of the new city presupposes that all of its inhabitants have access to motorised transport. Like a public notice-board, the surfaces of the bus shelter accumulate layers of sectarian graffiti and these ominous sentiments lurk behind ostensibly celebratory events like the fireworks display.

Precariously framed far off the vertical, the Fireworks Display is tense with intimations of violence. From their rapt, transported expressions, the spectators could be witnessing something terrible rather than something beautiful. The inclusion of part of a Landrover in one of these images, together with Sloan's practise of composing his pictures off-balance, as though they were taken in extremis, lends them an unsettling, reportage quality. The spectators are hypnotised into immobility by the spectacle, but, apart from the title, he is deliberately unclear about indicating just what sort of spectacle it might be. One possibility left open is that they are looking at their own history and their own contemporary reality repackaged as a theatrical presentation. By who? By, presumably, the politicians, by the media. The implication, though, is that they decline to take responsibility for it themselves. And they anticipate the spectators of another kind of theatrical event, the Sham Fight at Scarva. The pyrotechnics display, a somewhat ironic, even cruelly ironic motif in the context of Northern Ireland, joins the list of theatricalised spectacles that stand in for history in Sloan's images: the zoo, the resort, the new city, to be joined soon by the march, the political meeting, the re-enactments of past battles.

In any case, the idea comes through that the utopian project is undermined by inbuilt inconsistencies and tensions. As a surface which signals underlying tensions the bus shelter recalls the perspex screen in the zoo and, indeed, Sloan's own re-worked photographs. He uses the experiences of the Vietnamese Boat People who were housed in Craigavon as a model of how this ideal society might respond to an authentic Other. Images of some of the Vietnamese refugees at a particularly grim social evening in the community centre suggest disorientated individuals trapped in a soulless municipal environment. The tone is indicative of their fate. It hardly seems surprising that none of the Vietnamese Boat People chose to remain in Craigavon. They have all dispersed elsewhere.

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.

Like the Craigavon work, Moving Windows builds a cumulative mood of subtle unease that is typical of his overall approach. That is, the more we seem to be dealing with workaday normality, looking at snapshots of anonymous daily life, the more we become quietly sure that the apparent normality is deceptive. But they are also quite prescient in their exceptional informality, the unforced casualness of their pictorial aesthetic. Influenced by film, they are like isolated frames from fluid film narratives, with that sense of chance and transience about them, as though the camera is caught in mid-pan, between one thing and another.

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.

That is, Sloan looks at loyalism on its own terms. It is worth asking why he has concentrated his attentions on the loyalist side of the Northern divide. In discussing his marching season images, Brian McAvera makes the point that, while Sloan's work generally can be construed as a critique of loyalism, it never takes the form of a nationalist critique, it is not, that is to say, argued from an opposing nationalist position.

Extraordinarily in some respects, the ideology and the internal politics of nationalism are almost absent from his output. They are always indirectly there, in various levels of implication and in the form of a sometimes symmetrical Other, an opposing and perhaps necessary presence, but it is not explored in a comparably interrogative way. Rather he seems intent on elucidating the problems and contradictions within loyalism, as someone from within the general community, something that lends his work an unusual force and authority.

The Walk, the Platform and the Field maps out a ritualised process enacted in a hallowed space. The Walk is the march, undertaken to the accompaniment of Drumming, the title of another marching series. The Field has served as a political platform since the current pattern of the Twelfth marches was developed in the late 19th century. For Sloan the Field is clearly another emblematic environment, a symbolically charged arena in which questions of territoriality and religious and political identity are raised and become inextricably entwined. And the Platform from which the crowd is addressed is a recurrent motif, an overtly theatrical stage.

The Birches, Walls, Sham Fight (Scarva) and Day of Action (Bangor) are series that fall within the ambit of the marching work, directly or indirectly. Turf, from The Birches series, with its view of Orangemen marching over a bridge that seems - through the combination of two photographic negatives - to rest on a turf stack, has been interpreted, he notes non-committaly, as implying that "Orangism is built on a weak foundation." The Birches refers to an ostensibly pastoral rural region of small farms close to Portadown, and one clear implication of Turf is that the apparently idyllic rural landscape, every bit as much as the urban, is structured by and imbued with a difficult and obtrusive history.

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.

In 1689, King William is said to have pitched his tent in the shade of a large Spanish chestnut tree in the grounds of Scarva House in Co Down, and there the Williamite forces gathered en route to the South and confrontation with James. The location has become the site of one of the most important annual commemorative rituals for Ulster Protestants. Every July 13th, many gather to participate in and witness The Sham Fight at Scarva Demesne, an elaborate, enthusiastic re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne.

As with the images of the spectators at a fireworks display in Craigavon, in the photographs of the fight there is a strong sense of people as spectators of their own history repackaged as theatrical ritual, hypnotised, in some case, by the spectacle. They stand, variously engrossed, transported and even genuinely horrified. While the images essentially depict people having a good time, in general they do not look a bit as if they are having a good time. The point about them is that they are witnessing a spectacle which has numbed them, taken them over.

Yet the whole point of the Sham Fight, of course, is that the outcome is assured. It's an example of a community telling its own reassuring story to itself and, as Walter Benjamin observed, citing the example of Scheharezade, story-telling is a way of postponing the future. As the writer Adam Phillips sees it in his book Terrors and Experts, ritual can be a means of managing fear. The superstitious person and the phobic "enact a reliability, a predictability they know to be precarious - a certainty the future cannot guarantee. They behave as if they know what they are frightened of; if they did not believe they knew this, there would be no solution available; their fear is an act of faith. It has to have - or it has to construct - a relatively stable referent, otherwise the ritual solution would be felt to be hopelessly ineffectual."

The periodic re-enactment of a ritualised fear, or of the ritualised banishment of a notional fear, is a defence against an unknowable, unpredictable and uncontrollable future. In fact Freud boldly ascribes the existence of religions to the continuity in adulthood of the helplessness of the infant, its fearful dependence on the love of its carers, a love shadowed by the constant possibility, the abiding threat, of its loss. This threat spurs us "to secure something that by definition cannot be secured....we acknowledge that the future cannot be guaranteed; and then we set out to guarantee it." Although fear "is a state of mind in which the object of knowledge is the future...it is, of course, a knowledge that can only be derived from the past....by the same token, knowledge born of fear closes down the future."

So often the loyalist project in Northern Ireland has seemed to be precisely that, to close down the future, to make sure that the future is merely a repetition of the past. The reiterated, underlying certainty that emerges in Sloan's acerbic exploration of loyalism is that the theatrical representation is inadequate not only to the demands of the future but even to the reality of the past. It is riddled with corrosive inconsistencies which not only prevent it from neutralising or obviating the future, but ensure the disintegration of the loyalist dream itself through sheer self-contradiction. The events of the last decade lend his 1980s work an exceptional and prophetic force.

It's reasonable to see the dramatic, seismic disjunctures of the pictorial surface of the various marching season images as corresponding to strains and fissures in any notionally agreed social and political fabric, a sign of inherent instability. But the gestural language of the marks goes further than that. There are specific suggestions that the periodic rehearsal of theatricalised history, the past apparently disarmed and re-enacted as play, as a prophylactic against the future, must at some point translate into real conflict in the present, must face up to the problems its representations imply for and perhaps foment in the present. The props in the carnival, the umbrellas and swords, become lethal weapons, the Sham Fight mirrors and must become a real fight. And yet again, the inescapable conclusion is that loyalism is self-destructive.

A sense of frustration at the limitations of unionist political thought is taken up in Sloan's record of the Day of Action in 1986. He happened to be visiting Bangor during the Loyalist Day of Action, a mass strike organised to protest the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This agreement, in some respects a precursor of the Good Friday Agreement, allowed for cross-border ministerial meetings and was regarded as unacceptable by Unionist politicians. To mark the day he took some photographs of the out-of-season resort, which is of course one of his emblematic settings. Strokes are slashed across sparse, slightly bleak but otherwise benign, exceptionally empty images, scratching and bleaching out the chemically fixed tones.

Now, there is an obvious and intended irony in the fact that he situates his documentation of the Day of Action in an out-of-season resort town, by definition, after all, a place where things do not happen. The point about the images here - and they have an edgy, chilly, desolate beauty - is that, as he says, they record "a day of inaction," reflecting the fact that the Loyalist initiative was designed to undo the agreement, to prevent movement and maintain the status quo. But the gesture is, the pictures again suggest, ultimately destructive of precisely the status quo it aspires to preserve. Again, the appearance of normality is saved at the expense of simmering, disruptive contradictions within the social fabric.

Some of these inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies are explored in his Circus series. During the summer of 1990, the American Circus Ltd visited Portadown. One Sunday, Sloan and his family decided to go to the circus and were surprised to encounter a group of protestors trying to deter people from going in. The event prompted him to think about making some circus photographs. When he eventually exhibited some of these photographs he included an extract from the Lurgan Mail in the catalogue to provide an explanatory context:

"One hundred 'Never on a Sunday' campaigners were outside the American Circus Ltd big top in a bid to persuade punters to boycott the afternoon and evening performances. Mr Woolsey Smith, Worshipful Master of the Independent Lodge who took part in the protest described it as a 'great success'....'What we did not agree with was the further desecration of the Sabbath. As far as we are concerned, the desecration of the Sabbath has gone far enough. The Sabbath is part of our heritage and by and large the majority of people do not want circus performances on a Sunday.

"'We can't understand it,' said ringmaster Philip Hansen. 'Most of the circus members had doubts about coming to Northern Ireland. They thought it was another Beruit. We managed to persuade them that it wasn't as bad as it appeared on tv, but since arriving we have had nothing but hassle.'"

Given the harmless nature of the target, the protest provides an incongruous glimpse back into a familiar Ulster of denial, restriction and religiosity, to Derek Mahon's Belfast Sundays with


dank churches, the empty streets,

the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings..."

One of Sloan's best-known circus images pictures an elephant trainer, Audrey Hansen, lying on a mat on the ground while an African elephant towers above her. On one level it is an extremely threatening, sexual image, with the mass of the animal, and its explicitly phallic tusk poised above the prone, bare-legged Hansen, and it has generally been interpreted as such. And it is certainly tempting to read into it further dark allegorical hints based on this sexual interpretation. Yet really a more persuasive argument has to be that an underlying theme here, as with all of the circus images, which are exceptionally affirmative, has to do with faith and trust.

While the surface is aggressively worked with pigment and chemicals, the attack - an attempt to censor the images which might be read as a counterpart of the protestors' attempt to preserve the Sabbath - serves only to outline rather than, as elsewhere, undermine the central drama of the image. But the drama here, though it is a practised theatrical ritual, depends on a literal act of faith on the part of all the performers, including Hansen, who entrusts herself to the care and adroitness of a creature - a genuinely unknown, unknowable Other - which could easily injure or kill her. It is the core of trust and interdependence that Sloan repeatedly emphasises. Louis MacNeice captured the sacramental aspect of the circus in his poem about trapeze artists:

" …… Like dolls or angels

Sexless and simple

Our fear their frame,

Hallowed by handclaps,

Honoured by eyes

Upward in incense


In a crucifixion's

Endless moment."

The logic of Sloan's images reverses the apparent order of what was happening that Sunday in Portadown. The self-righteous moralists who profess to uphold the integrity of the Sabbath are participants in a hollow performance buoyed up by empty rhetoric, like Mahon's preacher:

"Your people await you, their heavy washing

flaps for you in the housing estates -

a credulous people. God, you could do it, God

help you, stand on a corner stiff

with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun."

The protestors are, in other words, the circus performers in the pejorative sense of making a circus of their faith. While, inside the tent, the performers are enacting rituals of genuine trust, putting themselves on the line and completely dependent on each other, engaging in real acts of faith. And so much of what the performers do as entertainment, in play - juggling, spinning, jumping - depends on poise and balance, on achieving a precarious physical equilibrium that we can read as an equivalent to efforts to negotiate a compromise and maintain a political equilibrium. It is the performers, the entertainers, who act in good faith, while those who occupy the high moral ground have "nothing under the sun" to offer.

There is, however, another, bleak twist to this idea, of the elucidation of the nature of faith by external pressures, in a group of images relating to one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles, the Darkley killings of November 1983, when gunmen opened fire on the congregation at a small Pentecostal meeting-hall, killing three elders and wounding seven other people. This stark and extraordinarily callous act was one of many - like the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, or the Grey Steele massacre - that broke through the jaded indifference of a public seemingly inured to atrocity.

Sloan pictured some of the Darkley congregation at a public prayer meeting. The images are among his most difficult and ambivalent. There is something inescapably touching about the vulnerability of the small, ramshackle band of worshippers praying and singing on a makeshift stage, bound together by their faith, particularly framed by the knowledge of what happened at Darkley. On another level, though, we can rather cruelly see through the artifice of presentation, the rhetorical affectation, ("To God be the Glory"), to the pathetic, tawdry reality. Yet the violence enacted on, literally and figuratively, the image, the representation, has served to make something real of what might otherwise be easily dismissed. The murderers' brutal act is self-defeating in that it serves to make concrete the abstraction of what they oppose. In a terrible way it confirms the faith of the congregation in the sense that it confirms their fear. "Their fear," as Phillips says of the phobic, "is an act of faith, " and the "stable referent" has done pretty much as expected.

While most of Sloan's work is firmly rooted in Northern Ireland, in its subject matter and its immediate concerns, there are exceptions. He has worked on two major projects abroad, the Borne Sulinowo and Stadium series. They, together with images indirectly related to the Vietnam War, refer specifically to the idea of aftermath, and more precisely to the problem of how to deal with the aftermath, a problem that Northern Ireland has not really gotten to grips with yet.

In 1993 and 1994, as part of a project organised by Wladyslaw Kazmierczak, Sloan visited the town of Borne Sulinowo in Poland. Deep in woodland close to the German border, the town had been a Soviet Army base. It was vacated overnight during the winter of 1992. When Sloan went there it was a ghost town. All that remained was what the Russians had been unable or unwilling to bring with them, and whatever the Poles hadn't thought worth taking when they trashed the place. That is, propaganda material, training films, and, rather disturbingly, personal snapshots and effects.

The deserted Borne Sulinowo is a striking example of a problematic social space, like the other environments Sloan has sought out. While there is no overt connection with the North, Sloan's work acts as a quizzical commentary on the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland and, more, given a persistently prescient streak in his work, on the question of what sort of place Northern Ireland might be after the conflict. His work on the Polish material was encouraged by the IRA's ceasefire in 1994. The pictorial detritus of the abandoned army town strangely parallels and prefigures the troop withdrawals in Northern Ireland and the questions that came to the fore during the prolonged, interrupted negotiations.

In one of the Moving Windows images Dog, Lurgan, Sloan photographed a disused factory, an ugly block-like structure, that for many years served as a British army base. It is attended by a comparable air of dereliction to the buildings in Borne Sulinowo, and living conditions in it must have been equally grim and cheerless. The pervasive feeling of the waste of both material resources and human potential that characterises Borne Sulinowo clings to the shell of the redundant barracks.

Sloan's mother was a keen photographer, who photographed everyone who called to the house. When he was invited to make a self-portrait he did it by arranging and re-photographing some of the studies his mother had made of him - her favourite images. Sorting through copious prints that she had made of so many people reminded him, he said, "of how fragile humans are, of how people just disappear, they fade away and that's it, they're gone." It's impossible not to look at his own work, as a sustained, sceptical assault on the apparent fixity of the photographic image, in the light of this remark.

In the Borne Sulinowo work he is, paradoxically, trying to resurrect what has been lost only to confirm its loss. "They're images that have been destroyed, and I've taken them and destroyed them again." It's an exercise in mixed feelings, but there is little that is positive in his bleak view of what comes across, finally, as a pointless exercise in the perpetuation of human misery. It's tempting to see the residual images of the Soviet troops, literally superimposed in many cases, on the Polish background, as victims, as individuals caught up in a context they mistakenly believe is in their best interests.

In 1984 he had photographed the Vietnamese Boat People in the Pinebank Community Centre in Craigavon. It is in this context that we should view images that stem from a visit to the US in 1997. While there, he visited a shop in Rome, Georgia, and photographed souvenirs of the Vietnam War, including a toy version of a monument to US veterans of the war, and a pair of army boots. The suggestion here, of how past conflict is consigned to a place in a culture, has repercussions for Northern Ireland.

Some years later, on one of several visits to Berlin, he visited the stadium designed by Werner March and built for the notorious 1936 Olympic Games. It is one of the few surviving structures of its era, and Sloan recalls that, while he visited other sites with fascist associations, when he arrived at the stadium that he was immediately struck by its overwhelming atmosphere. "It felt strange, sinister and cold."

His film and photographic installation inspired by the stadium is relatively schematic in his oeuvre, consisting of six large-scale images and a video of a looped film fragment tested to destruction and actually burning up (which has, understandably, inspired several viewers to intervene to try to save the film from being destroyed). The loop is from the 1930s children's comedy serial, The Little Rascals, and is a clip featuring a black child - a reference to the presence of the American athlete Jesse Owen at the 1936 Olympiad. The use of The Little Rascals emphasises the central role of play - or, here, entertainment and sport - in wider social and political discourse. Owens' success at the games was symbolically significant, disrupting Hitler's agenda of providing a demonstration of Aryan superiority.

The Olympiad was an overtly theatrical event and Sloan's Stadium is, like the majority of his work, an encouragement to look beyond the surface of the spectacle. His basic strategy is, quite simply, to offer angles of view that subvert the stage-management of the organisers. Neo-Classical statuary, of athletic figures of notionally perfect physique, designed to be viewed from the front, are depicted from the rear, while the distinctly un-aryan Hitler and Von Hindenberg are viewed from the front.

A pile of rubble, part of the excavations in the construction of a museum, formed part of the Prinz-Albert-Terrain, the SS administrative centre, including the cellars where prisoners were interrogated and tortured. The unpalatable is unearthed and the rubble disturbingly recalls images of piles of corpses in the concentration camps. "I liked the idea of literally digging up the past." The question here, as with Borne Sulinowo, is how we cope with the toxic legacy of conflict, of unspeakable and horrible actions, a question that is every bit as relevant in Northern Ireland as it is in Germany and Poland, as, for example, the strange spectacle of the search, involving substantial and largely fruitless excavations, for victims of the Provisional IRA, deomonstrates. A view of the ceremonial bell, which focuses on the tiny, almost invisible imprint of a swastika, draws attention to the importance of detail as a key to suppressed or buried meaning.

To come back from dealing with images of aftermath to 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"Should I have been a straightforward documentary photographer? I sometimes envy photographers who just point and click." Sloan muses at one point. But the evidence of his work is that he is not only wary but is wholeheartedly against the neat narrative structures of news and documentary photography. This is not to disparage the skill and integrity of such photographers, but an acknowledgement of the tight framework, the surprisingly fixed codes of representations within which they usually operate. Sloan's work is on one level a consistent, dogged attempt to unsettle those stable frameworks, to argue the problematic nature of photographic representation.

"Does a photograph need an explanation? Do we always have to say something about it or have you got enough in the image itself?" He also asks. When the question is turned back at him he is undecided, but inclined to think that in the end we do need an explanatory context. Certainly his own uneasy, iconoclastic, often fugitive attitude to the image is symptomatic of a resistance to the neatly packaged spectacle, an intimation that what we see is inevitably filtered through our own ideological and cultural position, that we are all, whether we like it or not, contextualised.

Everything he has done to date investigates the ramifications of the methods and assumptions tentatively apparent in his Belfast Zoo images. Through his exploration of a series of paradigmatic social spaces he has formulated a documentary critique of loyalism and, by implication, it must be said, nationalism, that is remarkably free of rancour. His work embodies a scepticism about the presentation of history and tradition in Northern Ireland, about the loyalist project to nullify the future through the ritualised and militant re-enactment of the past, and about the ability of the political leadership to step outside the limiting roles they have assigned themselves. More, though, in his depictions of the populace as an audience hypnotised by the presentations of past and present that they are offered, there is the suggestion that people must take responsibility for their own destinies. If, in his accounts of Drumcree, of Borne Sulinowo and of the 1936 Olympic Stadium, there is not a huge amount of optimism about them being able to do this, there is also the acknowledgement that change is inevitable, and that the past must at some stage be allowed to become the past.

Aidan Dunne