Can art in Northern Ireland transcend political barriers?

Art Review, London, 17 October 1986

Can art in Northern Ireland transcend political barriers?

Gerry Burns looks at Victor Sloan’s photoworks at the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast.

Art must develop where there is most going on. In the north of Ireland there is arguably more ‘going on’ in terms of political activity than any other part of these islands. Just as Dublin produced numbers of brilliant artists and writers out of proportion to its size during the course of struggle for independence, so the north of Ireland at the present time, could, by the same token be expected to produce more than its fair share of artistic talent. In a number of areas, most notably poetry, it has clearly done so. In the visual arts the response has been less assured. Victor Sloan, from Portadown, however is an emerging talent who could make his mark if he continues to produce work of the quality of his current exhibition, Drumming

The subject matter of the exhibition is the Orange Parades held annually in Northern Ireland. Because of the heightening of tension caused by the Anglo-Irish Agreement the parades took place this year in something of an atmosphere of crisis. Sloan’s work captures this perfectly. The parades are ostensibly a celebration of the victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne almost 300 years ago, but they are also an assertion that in the present the Protestant ascendancy will be maintained in the north. As such, they are something of an anachronism in the twentieth century. The past, however, has always been as important as the present in Ireland and this strong sense of the past pervades the work in this exhibition.

In Carrying the Crown, for example, a little girl, an almost ghost-like figure, reverently carries a replica of the Queen’s crown. The paint cracks like layers on an old wall, an image in itself of the various cultural layers which have merged to form many of the north’s current political ideas.Entering the Field shows the Orange marchers sandwiched at it were between the modern age, symbolised by the row of parked cars, and the restless swirl of the past. In historical terms time never stands still, although each year in their regalia the Orangemen attempt to ensure that it should.

Victor Sloan stresses that he does not wish to be regarded simply as a ‘northern artist’ because he feels art, if it is to have any permanent value, must transcend political boundaries. Nevertheless his recent work, most notably The Walk, the Platform and the Field and his current exhibition, have been inspired by what passes for political activity in the north. He is, after all, a northerner and cannot, therefore, claim to be totally free of inherited partisanship, a predilection so insidious that the world’s costliest education often affords but superficial immunity against it. His work here, however, is controlled by the cold eye, which is so essential for the artist.

Sloan has exhibited his work as widely as possible in the past, both in this country and abroad and some of his work is included in a touring exhibition of the United States, but ‘Drumming’ is undoubtedly his most ambitious project to date. Northern Irish artists, somewhat like the Orangemen portrayed in this exhibition, are on the horns of a dilemma. Do they ignore the troubles completely and in so doing turn their backs on an important aspect of northern life, or do they record and comment on events there and so run the risk of losing an important sense of perspective? Victor Sloan has wisely chosen the latter, and clearly more difficult, course. In so doing he has demonstrated an almost complete mastery of his historical idiom into which he has been born while avoiding the snares of provincialism into which a number of other artists have fallen who have attempted a similar approach.

The present and the past are in conflict in the north as perhaps never before and along the thin stark edge where they meet lives are being lost and hopes decimated. Victor Sloan’s exhibition views one aspect of the northern situation but in it we can see all the stresses and tensions of a society at war with itself. ‘Drumming’ is one of the strongest and most coherent collections to have been produced in Northern Ireland for some time. It deserves to be seen widely.

Gerry Burns