Monday, 22 January, 2001
Circus of Ritual War
Victor Sloan is best known for his extraordinary images of the marching season in Northern Ireland. Like all of his work, his Selected Works is made up of photographic images, but they are not straightforward photographs. Over the last 20 years, Sloan has been one of the most iconoclastic, experimental, innovative and audacious photographic artists at work, not just in Ireland but anywhere. He takes outrageous liberties with the nice, well-made, well-mannered photographic image, making of it something compromised and problematic.
These liberties begin with the use of the camera. When the painter Mark Joyce took up photography, he spoke about trying to introduce a different dynamic into the process, "shaking the camera around a bit, swilling the light around inside". As it happens, that's an uncannily accurate description of what Sloan does in many of his images, which distance themselves from a conventional pictorial aesthetic.
Sloan was born in Dungannon. His father had a shop in the town square. Later, during the Troubles, the square was several times a target for car bombers. "We'd have to discard masses of stock, all this confectionery, because it might be contaminated with bits of broken glass. There was a terrible feeling of waste, a kind of microcosm of the wider picture."
His mother was a keen photographer, "she photographed everyone who happened to call to the house," and she created an exceptional record of him and his siblings as they grew up.
He is, though, non-prescriptive about the meanings of his work. He prefers that people interpret the images themselves, and is wary of pre-empting this process. Part of the logic of his approach, in questioning the possibility of objectivity and detachment, is that there may be entirely consistent meanings of which he is unaware. One implication that emerges from the marching season series, in his explorations of the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry, the Sham Fight at Scarva and the annual impasse at Drumcree, is that the ritualised re-enactment of a sanctified past, a past enshrined in tradition, is an almost superstitious way of warding off the possibility of future change. His documentation of the 1986 "Day of Action”, designed to bring down the Anglo-Irish Agreement, underlines this: it was, as he says, "a day of inaction" in his images, the source photographs for which were taken in Bangor. An out-of-season holiday resort is a place where things do not happen.
As Sloan's marching season images imply, the Sham Fight inevitably screens a real fight, the show-swords still wound.
Prior to the work he made about Drumcree, Sloan was involved in two projects abroad, at a disused Russian army base in Poland, and in Berlin, in the stadium built for the 1936 Olympic Games. The political theatre of the latter, and the notion of an aftermath in the former are obviously relevant to Northern Ireland, but they also broaden out Sloan's concerns, situating what might be regarded as local problems in a global context. It's as if he is asking, in this work, whether Northern Ireland is willing to grow up.
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