Extracts from Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan, by Brian McAvera, published by Open Air, Dublin and Impressions, York, England

Part 2


With the series called Drumming the artist quarried larger themes. The initial subject matter is still Orangeism and its celebratory rites, as displayed during the Twelfth of July parades, but this subject matter is now related to the current political context in that the 1986 Parades took place at a time of heightened tension caused by the Anglo-Irish agreement, an agreement which large sections of the Protestant/Orange population regarded with marked suspicion. The numerous references to ‘Ulster Says No’ refer to the various campaigns run by groupings as varied as local councils or Orange Lodges, all of which aimed for the elimination of the Agreement, an agreement which acknowledged the interests of the Republic of Ireland in the Northern Ireland situation. The message of the campaigns was blunt: the Protestant Ascendancy will be maintained in the North!

The artist is still dealing with images of the marching season as a baseline. “I followed them from about six a.m. in the morning until they went home that night. Individual Orange Lodges, in the small towns would be up at six and come in by coach from the country to the town, looking their best in clean gloves, sashes and so on.”

Instead of working on traditional photographic small size, Sloan opted for a much larger scale, that of the traditional medium sized easel picture. The predominant tone is a sepia one, rather like early hand-tinted photographs: records of a bygone age. There is a neat paradox in this conceit in that the events depicted are threateningly present tense whereas the Marching Season, with its commemoration of a three-hundred-year-old Battle of the Boyne triumphalism allied to the maintenance of a Protestant Ascendancy, is solidly anachronistic.

As with The Walk, the Platform and the Field, we still view bowler-hated gentlemen with sashes, crowds assembled on a bridge or flute players marching. Children still partake; white symbols of innocence; reminders of uncorrupted youth who will imbibe sectarian hatreds.However the mark-making, as well as the scale, has taken on a new urgency. In almost every image the central figure struggles to emerge from a miasma of marks which compress both background and middle ground into foreground, and even seem to press down upon the foreground itself. It’s as if the image was caught between ineluctable forces; as if the Apocalypse were actually happening; as if space itself cracks as the known world ceases to exist. This sense of millennial Apocalypse is framed by a controlling irony: the figures are trapped in time (a neat photographic pun this as photographs arrest time in a linear fashion). The painterly attack extends this notion as the baseline images are trapped in the flux of history (just as the Orangemen are trapped in their own historicism) as opposed to a moment in time. As a result the metaphoric implications are clear: the Orangemen are anachronistic figures beached in a wilderness of the present tense; outmoded, unable to change, they are helpless before Time’s onslaught. The biblical Apocalypse, ironically a source of much of their verbal imagery, has caught up them rather than with the Pope-ridden Romanists.

The world of these images is the world of the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign viewed simultaneously from two vantage points: the first is that of the Orangemen themselves, convinced of their uprightness, integrity and their ability to say No to direct rule from Westminster. In Marching 1 for instance there are two ‘Ulster Says No’ posters on the road sign while Field 11 displays a ‘Co. Armagh Orangemen say No’ banner, strung across a field. The second viewpoint is a critique which expresses Sloan’s authorial viewpoint through his interventions. The authorial voice is neither Nationalist nor Loyalist; nor is it vituperative. Rather it is an unlinking authorial presence which tries to suggest the logical outcome of the Unionist mentality, as seen in this vein. In essence it’s a voice which raises unpalatable questions. The double X’s on one of the posters ram home the unthinking support given at the ballot box (the X is for one’s vote) while simultaneously suggesting defacement and thus opposition. The slashing calligraphy of strokes is a grim reminder of the violence that will ensue while the volcanic-like swirls which dominate the atmosphere - another Pompeii - suggest the impending World’s End… or a least the end of the world as we know it. These vortex-like movements are paradigms for the very fabric of space and time which are now in danger of collapse.

Field II, Version 1 (Co. Armagh Orangemen Still Say No!),
silver gelatin print, 
toner and gouache, 66.5cms x 69.5cms, 1986. 
© Victor Sloan

Allied to the millennial fervour, and to a certain extent providing a human baseline, is a grim black humour (a very Northern Irish characteristic). Apart from the photographic pun of being trapped in time, which is a controlling irony, there are numerous local ironies: the reed of the bagpipe in Marching 1 looks like a bazooka while the musicians themselves are partially enveloped by the fabric of space and time which seems to be torn by the music itself which emanates from their instruments. It’s as if space is given the musical notation of rupture: as if each note signals a tear in space which is annotated by some malevolent prankster. Music, the metaphor for harmony, now provokes disharmony.

This notion is implicit in the paradox of the title: Drumming. On one level the drums are usually perceived as providing the beat, the rhythm, the basic time signature for a tune. However, the word ‘drum’ resonates in other ways. As the artist himself notes it can refer to wardrums, to the Orange tradition of drumming (territoriality), and to the notion of drumming something into somebody’s head - a vernacular expression which can be taken in both a positive and a negative sense. Thus it is both celebration and warcry, both assertion of identity in the positive sense, and imposition of identity in the negative sense; both harmony and disharmony; both continuation of tradition in the manner of a richly endowed culture (the benign aspect) and the ossification of tradition in the manner of the stubborn grip of outmoded concepts.

Carrying the Crown, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache,
66.5cms x 69.5cms, 1986. 
© Victor Sloan

Tribal energies have been scraked to the surface, revealing the dark underbelly, the Janus face. In Carrying the Crown a small girl carries a replica of the Queen’s crown, symbolising the loyalty of the Unionists to the English parliament, a loyalty which contrives to ignore the disloyalty of the ‘Ulster Says No’ campaign. In Holding the Rope, a similar girl exists in a bubble or tear in the swirling fabric of space; a quiet oasis. But she is branded by a zigzag of black which rhymes with the other dominant figures in the image, that of the three policemen in flak jackets; black figures who represent the world she will grow into. As Gerry Burns aptly remarked, the cracked paint “like layers on an old wall… (is) an image in itself of the various cultural layers which have merged to form many of the North’s current political ideas.”

These are deeply pessimistic works which demonstrate that the artist is totally in control of his medium. They are also ‘more aware’ than earlier images in that Sloan was consciously considering the possibilities of each intervention. If the Walk, the Platform and the Field was an instinctive leap into the dark, then the present series represents the ‘caught’ subject matter, refined and controlled, and extended conceptually, by means of a focused technique.

Marching I (Drumming Series, 1986)

Marching I, Armagh City, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache,
58cms x 58cms, 1986 
© Victor Sloan

To think of the artist as simply a photographer is absurd when confronted by this image which bears all the traces of editing and addition for the sake of composition, meaning, and focus. The scene is Barrack Street in Armagh where his granny used to live. To the left is where his father was born. Almost all the detail of the buildings has been edited out, as have a large number of marchers who were originally located at the bottom of the frame. One marcher only has been highlit, and the whole is enveloped in a painted miasma.

This work is savage in its irony. The smiling, sashed marcher looks into the distance, flanked by the road sign indicating the hated Republic of Ireland (the Monaghan sign). On the sign are two ‘Ulster Says No’ posters, one of which is cancelled by a series of scraking X’s. In Sloan’s mind the road sign was like a banner which cross-linked to the poster and the Orangemen. All around though, is the indistinct blur of buildings and roadways, as space itself is devastated: the fabric of space and time rends and cracks as the known world ceases to exist.

Field II (Drumming Series, 1986)

Field II (Co. Armagh Orangemen Still Say No!),
silver gelatin print, toner and gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986 
© Victor Sloan

Field II, Version 1 (Co. Armagh Orangemen Still Say No!),
silver gelatin print, 
toner and gouache, 66.5cms x 69.5cms, 1986 
© Victor Sloan

This is another pastoral image which has been subverted and reinvented. If one compares the earlier Field II (Version I) and later versions of this work one can see the extent to which Sloan has tightened the focusing of the image, editing out flags, various spectators including a woman sitting on a canvas chair, and an earlier intervention which resulted in a number of somewhat biomorphic shapes. The finished image highlights the ‘Co. Armagh Orange still say No’ banner, placing it firmly between the natural world as represented by the copse of trees, and the supernatural world of an apocalyptic vision.

Route, (Drumming Series) 1986

Route (Safe Home Brethren), silver gelatin print, toner and 
gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986 © Victor Sloan

In the early days of photography, the time of the big plate cameras, a character would almost disappear if he moved when the photograph was being taken. He would become a ghostly presence. The artist deliberately attempted to get this effect with the figures in the foreground, as if to suggest previous generations. We are shown a crowd of marchers who are funnelling from the ‘field’ and going into the town. Bunting strung between the telegraph poles, and the vertical street lights, provide an avenue-architecture for the image. As ever, what is seen is not necessarily what was originally there. Buildings have been changed into trees and road signs have been edited out. There is a neatly ironic conceit at the heart of the work. The banner bears the legend ‘Safe Home Brethren’ whereas the circular vortex-like movements suggest that this is somewhat unlikely.

Marching II (Drumming Series, 1986)
Marching II, Armagh City, silver gelatin print, toner and
gouache, 58cms x 58cms, 1986 
© Victor Sloan

As with a zoom lens in a movie, we are taken right into a crowd scene. Most of the people are facing away from us except for a woman mid right, and three sashed and bowlered Orangemen top left. This work is very close to the Moving Windows series in terms of rich subtle colouring of yellows, pinks and blue-greens. It’s an impressionistic crowd scene, visually regaling the eye with colour and movement. The use of markings, gouache and watercolours shift the image decisively towards abstraction. This is reinforced by the interlace of zigzag markings which overlay the composition.

Some of the figures are insubstantial and ghostlike; cancelled out as well by the scraking calligraphy, as if the Orangemen were literally reducing themselves to cutouts; as if they were losing their identity or were disorientated amidst a fog.

The Birches Series 

The Birches is an area some three miles from Portadown en route to Dungannon. Using a medium format camera Sloan took ‘ordinary landscape photographs’. He also took a series of 35mm negatives whose subject matter was the Orangemen and the Blackmen (Royal Black Preceptory) and proceeded to ‘work’ on both sets of negatives. What he did next was to combine images from the two separate sets. He would place a negative from each set into separate enlargers, then project them and superimpose them onto the wall. By means of the aperture control he could manipulate brightness, thus controlling the intensity of each image by fading in and fading out. As he points out, you cannot control the balance between the two images if you simply sandwich the negatives into one enlarger - which is normal practice.

The paper used was matt, like good drawing paper, thus as with the Moving Windows series, quite subtle effects could be obtained in the watercolour application. The predominate tones are those of soft sepia, suggesting bygone ages, while the light rinses of blues, greens, pinks and yellows irrigate the sepia past tense with the landscape of the present tense.

If the typical Victor Sloan image of recent years had Orange Parades as its nominal focus, the present work takes that subject, lifts it out of its narrow focus in the Twelfth Parades, and places it firmly in the wider landscape of Northern Ireland, and frequently into a universal landscape. We are no longer dealing with a special occasion which has a broader relevance ; now we are dealing with the relationship of the Parade mythology and mentality as applied to the day-to-day existence of Northern Ireland; and as supplied to its history. Whereas a Paul Graham in his book Troubled Landscape will be aware of the Northern Ireland context but still produce rural landscapes which are deracinated of context, Sloan provides that context by his interventions. There is a slow seepage to the surface of the buried traces of history, religion and political conflict which landmine a seemingly innocent, rural, traditional landscape. This results in a state of tension, of unease; the land becomes threatening, dangerous, its peacefulness belied by the interference - like static on a screen - of the artist’s hand.

The scale of the works is large but has not increased noticeably while the technique, though more complex and adventurous than before, gives the impression of relaxation, largely because the millennial fervour of the two previous series is largely absent. In many ways the technical forays are close to the spirit of the thirties: the photomontages of a Heartfield; the sharply satirical caricature of a George Grosz; the overlapping dissolves of a European movie-maker. To be more precise, Sloan acquires the effects of these techniques, rather than duplicating them.

True Blues, The Birches, Portadown,
silver gelatin print, toners and gouache,
58cms x 48cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

In many of the works a figure is partially superimposed upon a landscape: ghostly presences which do, and do not belong. True Blues, punning on Orange regalia and conservative attitudes, has regalia-clad marchers in various states of presence, wreathed by gaunt branches. The landscape is bleak and bare, the trees are stripped of their leaves, and a wide farmer’s gate barrs our entry into the landscape. Massively out of scale are the huge presences of the Orangemen. The central figure, the oldest of them, has an impositional solidity which suggests the territorial need to dominate while the other two, in varying states of ghostly presence, are like the keepers of the flame: spirits of history connecting past history to the present. Above and behind their heads a lambeg drum, complete with Union Jack, floats in the miasma: a symbol of the clarion call to Orangeism; and reminder that the Birches area is noted for its flute bands. As ever it is a question of identity. Does one impose an identity? Does it arise naturally out of the race memory? Does one need to fan the ashes or beat the drum to keep it alive?

Marcher is a Grosz image translated into Sloan territory, its face deformed as if animalistic, seemingly wearing a balaclava or a gasmask, but with bowler hat and regalia intact. There is a group of images in this genre, not so much portraits in the conventional sense but rather psychological profiles; explorations of stereotypes. They are half-way between the self-portraits of Maurice Hobson who redefines the atrocity image by recreating the psychic penetration of an event - in his case the experience of being in a bomb explosion - and the portraits of August Sander whose grand ambition was to document the German people: the individual types as shaped by their traditions, their lot in life, their labours, their social class, and their generic temperaments. Sander’s technique is that of spare realism as applied by a ‘pure’ photographer. Hobson’s technique uses a non-naturalistic means to achieve realistic effects: he uses tableaux, superimposes, and so on. While closer to Hobson in technique Sloan’s aims approach those of Sanders. It will be intriguing to discover whether the artist pursues the possibilities of his ‘portrait technique in future years.

Other works take a different tack. Peace superimposes Elizabethan emblems onto the landscape: an ‘Elizabethan Temperance’ banner, a lectern with bible; and a pillar inscribed with the word ‘Peace‘. It’s a neat conceit for a rearguard mentality. Animals also sneak in as bestial metaphors, notably dogs and a pony - a tack which is common to Northern Irish contemporary painters such as Dermot Seymour and John Kindness. There is an element of ironic wit in some of these conjunctions as when members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are juxtaposed with the rear end of a donkey in the same frame. Clearly the law is an ass so to speak.

Another group of works sift into a different gear. Checkpoint for example with its highway code ‘Give Way’ sign hovering within a barbed-wire entanglement of scraking lines, and its arrowed signs, all of which are imposed on a ploughed landscape, is redolent of the Checkpoint Charlie vision translated to Ireland… memories of all those spy movies with their East European checkpoints. Works like these are about the need to assert territoriality, to assert one’s presence, to proclaim your identity, which in parochial terms for the narrow-minded; but which is then reinserted into the wider context of the world outside. The diehards have much in common with Eastern Europe - but who would have thought that the thaw in Eastern Europe would happen so quickly?

Seek Me (Birches Series 1988)

Seek Me, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print,
toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

Landscape and portrait are commingled, the one reflecting the identity of the other. Seek Me shows us clearly part of the trunk of a tree wreathed with an interlace of ivy and leafless branches. Nailed to the tree is a biblical legend, typical of many, which can be found in similar positions all over Northern Ireland. The text reads: ‘The Lord saith, and ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart’. Jeremiah 29:13. Behind the tree is a piece of farm machinery, the wheel of which is prominent. If the image is closely scrutinised the ghostly figure of an Orangeman in regalia becomes discernible. He is wearing glasses and seems to be staring out at us.

What is being suggested here? Does the ‘Seek Me of the title suggest that the man’s atavistic identification with the land, is so strong that he cannot separate himself from it? Or does it suggest the opposite - that the man’s identity is slipping away, leaching back into a past when black-and-white attitudes prevailed?

And Find Me (Birches Series 1988)

And Find Me, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print,
toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

This is a companion piece to ‘Seek Me’. The tree may have vanished but the man – the same man as in the former work – has started to materialise. His hat and bowler hat have become substantial, as have his glasses. A handlebar moustache has also appeared: this is an old military type, complete with his medals. He is superimposed onto a marshy, reedy landscape. Behind his head is a stack of cut wood. There he stands, an upright foursquare plank of Unionism and Orangeism, a military metaphor.

So what does ‘And Find Me’ indicate? Has the Orangeman found the God of the Old or the New Testament? Has he found God at all? Is he fighting for his rights – his interpretation – or is he squashing the rights of others? The viewer is left to make up his own mind

Turf (Birches Series 1988)

Turf, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print,
toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

In its cool sepia look, its classical framing (a curving diagonal almost bisecting the frame) and its seemingly traditional subject matter – a pallet of recently dug peat, straw, a rural landscape with creamy skies – this could almost be a photograph from one of the ‘little masters’ of early Irish photography such as Welsh, French or Alexander Hogg. But its attitudes, its tone and its means its means, are modern. Sloan no more believes in myths of rural romanticism or domesticity than you or I. Peat may indicate romantic boglands but the pallet indicates hard backbreaking work and cash crop.

The marchers proudly carry their Twelfth of July banners, asserting their Tradition, unbroken from King Billy to the present but the tone – undogmatic, questioning – asks the essential question of any tradition – is it still relevant to the here-and-now?

The means – the toners, the scrakes of hand-made mark – both assert and re-assert the nature of political commitment: idealism or intransigence: traditional strengths or archaic survivals. Thus the sky blends red, white and blue in loyal affirmation while the few scrakes that rend the surface suggest the possible fragility of the marchers’ position.

It is both a critique and a celebration; rather than a romantic gloss or tacky ‘promo’, Sloan is sufficiently committed to his heritage to explore it honestly, weighing up the freightage of the past but sieving it for the benefit of the present. Tradition cannot be blinkered, he seems to say: but its strengths are the building blocks of the future.

Royal Ulster Constabulary (Birches Series 1988)

Dogs, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print,
 toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

An image of the police, snapped in their own environment, has been superimposed onto the landscape environment of the Birches. The leather coats, peaked caps and guns, suggest not so much the police as the militia. As with Checkpoint there is a suggestion of an Eastern European atmosphere.

The police are set in the midst of a thick interlace of branches, as if in a dense brushwood. Another interlace, this time of hand-scraked marks, also envelopes them. Once again the image is profoundly ambiguous. Is the countryside inhabited by the police, or are the police the interlopers, desecrating the peace and quiet of nature?

Bowler Hat and Umbrella (Demonstration at the Castle Series, 1988)

Bowler Hat and Umbrella, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache,
128.9cms x 170.1cms, 1988 
© Victor Sloan

The scene is the balcony of Brownlow House where various speakers assemble to give speeches to the waiting crowd, including the two politicians who are pictured here. The heavy stone blocks and the shuttered windows of the mansion can be read as a reference to a traditional theme in Irish fiction, that of the Big House – in this case one belonging to the Ascendancy. The shutters suggest obsolescence: the mythology is out of date.

There is a penchant for black humour in some of Sloan’s work (think of the image of the R.U.C. and the donkey) which emerges again in this work. Two politicians are flanked by a circled, empty chair: waiting for Godot in the shape of a guest speaker. The chair, the two men and the Union Jack flag are linked by scoring lines into a triangulation of obsolesce, trapped in their Union Jack mentality. Both the men and the flag are encompassed by a vortex or whirlwind, not unlike the transmitter effect in Star Trek. ‘Beam me up Scottie’ they seem to say, but to where? As for the guest speaker, the leader, is he really coming? Is it a biblical visitation, or will the assembled congregation and the acolytes continue to wait in hope, for the improbable?

Walls Series

Londonderry, or Derry as it is familiarly know (through the respective appellations indicate the official protestant and catholic attitudes to the city) has been the definitive symbol of the Irish protestant’s determination to register a ‘No Surrender’ response to any threat, real or apparent, to their way of life. It is a symbol with a three - hundred year lineage. For the siege of Derry, one of the most famous stories in Irish history took place in 1689. It was a key point, not only in Irish history, but in a major European war. As J.G. Simms remarked in his authoritative The Siege of Derry (APCK, Dublin 1966, rep.1987)from an Irish point of view ‘it was a desperate effort made by the newer protestant colonists, English and Scots, to keep the position they had won in Ulster at the expense of the older inhabitants (i.e. the Gaels). The defenders endured terrible hardships, and the final result was in doubt till the very end of their long ordeal.’ (p.3)

As Gerry Burns has succinctly noted, this event can be viewed from two different but overlapping stances: ‘Depending on the point of view, what is now seen is an image either of heroic protestants holding out in desperate circumstances against hordes of murderously intentioned Roman Catholics, or of a foreign body of planters and colonists in retreat from one untenable position to another and in the process thwarting the honourable intensions of Irish nationalists.’ (Walls catalogue, p. 20)

The truth of the matter has always been unimportant: the mythology is what has counted. For example, as Robert Kee points out the protestant attitude to the British ships in the Foyle river, who either gave up Derry for lost, or else appeared to lack courage to burst the boom which was blockading the city, is a negative one, yet: ‘In reality, but for the arrival of British help, Derry would have surrendered: some within it were already negotiating for surrender when help arrived but the only reality which later history has allowed to count is that it did notsurrender, together with an awareness that however much the Northern Protestant may need British help he is also on his own. In that sense the Siege of Derry still goes on today though it was raised three centuries ago.’ (Kee, pp. 50-51).

In the time of James I, Derry was given to the city of London and its companies as part of the Ulster Plantation. They built the city, called it Londonderry with colonial appropriateness, and ringed it with a wall to keep out the Gaels. On two major occasions in the seventeenth century the city became a refuge. The first was in 1641 when a large part of the Ulster colony was swept off the lands on which it had settled by a rebellion of the Gaelic Irish Catholics. Atrocities were committed at the time but, as numerous historians have noted, these were greatly exaggerated - and it is the exaggerated versions which have been as important as the original atrocities themselves in conditioning the attitudes in Northern Ireland. To put it simply there is ‘no limit at all to the horrors that might have been or might still be inflicted’ on protestants in the collective mind of the Northern Ireland protestant (Kee, p. 44). It is worth remembering that in 1640 the protestants were outnumbered by the Catholics just as today, seen in an all-Ireland situation, they are likewise outnumbered.

In 1688 the city of Derry was again a refuge. Tension had been arising because of reports that protestants were being massacred by Catholics who were loyal to James II and thus against William of Orange. James was still the legitimate king but it was only a matter of time before he would be replaced by William. Thus, when a catholic garrison was sent in James’ name to replace a previous one, there began to be rumours of a massacre. Despite an official decision to let the troops into the city, thirteen apprentice boys took matters into their own hands and locked the gates. In December of that year a blockade started which lasted until the following July. To this day the memory of the siege is kept alive by the re-enactment of the earlier stages of the crisis. Symbolically the thirteen apprentice boys of Derry helped to save Ireland for William of Orange.

Victor Sloan’s series of eight photo-works entitled Walls can be viewed as enquiry into a life which is lived under a siege mentality. In terms of present day Derry the walls themselves are a visual emblem of a divided city. The title, Walls, like that of Drumming has multiple associations. Walls, like the poet Robert Frost’s fences, can be seen as conducive to good neighbourliness but they can also be seen as defensive. Furthermore, a walled city, in the tradition of the renaissance fortified city, is an anachronism in the technological age of the twentieth century. However, walls can be mental as well as physical, an emblem of a state of mind or a psychological perception rather than a physical manifestation. Just as an archaeological excavation of Hadrian’s Wall can reveal the layered cultural, social and historical deposits which enable us to understand the world of the Romans in the Britain of the time, so too do these images reveal the cultural, social, and historical accretions which pertain to the identity of Northern Ireland.

Market Street, Derry, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
120cms x 193cms, 1989 
© Victor Sloan

In Market Street for example there is a forceful conjunction of the past and the present. We view the solid mass of a section of the wall, stretching away diagonally into the distance. It is pierced by an arched gateway, topped with balustrading. Architecturally speaking, the wall represents the Old Order: a pattern from the past which is redolent of Roman organisation from the days of the empire until the Renaissance (Derry’s original ground plan has much in common with Roman city planning, being divided into clearly-labelled quarters). This bastion of the old order is yoked into the twentieth century by the addition of corrugated iron sheeting and barbed wire which are the army’s contribution to community policing. The sheeting and the barbed wire run along the top of the wall, reinforcing the notion of the wall as a bulwark or bastion which divides people. As an act of aesthetic vandalism this is comparable to defacing a medieval street-fa├žade with neon strip-lighting and advertising hoardings, but aesthetics are irrelevant in a street-fighting argument. In tandem with the corrugated sheeting are the police land rovers which flank each side of the archway. A police and/or army presence is a necessary adjunct to a festive parade.

Marching in between the landrover, and entering the darkness of the archway is the tail-end of a parade, a gaggle of youngsters bringing up the rear. Like their parents before them, they will continue to uphold the traditions, their tunnel vision neatly suggested by the darkened archway into which they walk. One of the striking aspects of this image is the way normal contextual referents have been stripped away. We do not see the wall in relation to the city. The wall is the city, closed down and fortified as if 1989 were a rerun of 1689 when the apprentice boys barred entry to the city to the forces of James II. This sense of enclosure, of refuge, is both heightened and undermined by the artist’s interventions. Instead of blue skies suggesting infinity of possibilities, Sloan has created an oppressive blanket of markings, gouache and watercolour which covers the area behind the wall like a lid on a saucepan. The scoring calligraphic slashes, in places like a parody of the barbed wire tracery, encircles the image, reaching a frenzy above the marchers as well as alongside the walls, seemingly generated like static electricity from the ‘clouds’ above

Still Under Seige, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
120cms x 193cms, 1989 
© Victor Sloan

This sense of being oppressed and oppressive, of being squeezed into a narrow area both physically and mentally, is approached from a markedly different perspective in Still under Siege in which a huge slogan is viewed frontally. Band members with their pipes and drums are marching past while in front of them, but with their backs to us, leaning against a wall, are the onlookers. But this is the world of Alice Through the Looking Glass. The image has been reversed (history goes backwards) so that the legend ‘Londonderry/West Bank Loyalists/Still Under Siege’ is seen as a mirror image. Written backwards it looks at first glance like some East European language. The participants are communicating with themselves only. Backs to the wall, they are sandwiched between the wall and the banner, and as we view them we observe the appearance of the cracks in their universe.

With Cupwinners and Bonfire, the baseline in each case being a photographic image in negative, a cross-connection is made between two forms of nationalism; two versions of identity. Cupwinners depicts a sideways view of Saint Patrick’s Accordion Band, posed in front of a shelf full of trophies underneath which are their accordions and a bass drum stenciled with their name. St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is closely associated with Gaelic culture. In Bonfire a triangular formation of youths pose in front of a bonfire which has as its centrepiece a placard which reads: ‘Maggie’s in Dublin’, a reference to Thatcher’s espousal of the Anglo-Irish agreement which allows the Republic of Ireland to have a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland. While the drum in Cupwinners asserts the primacy of Gaelic culture, the placard implacably asserts the opposite: Maggie’s Dublin is about to go up in smoke. Both of these images have a stark apocalyptic intensity. In both cases the human beings have black slashes across their eyes as if to indicate blindness. In both cases the outside world does not exist. Bonfire is a literal depiction of conflagration in which the participants are enveloped in the flames but seem unaware of the fact while Cupwinners is enveloped in a dense scribbled thicket of calligraphy beneath which the figures glow in a blinding flash as if in the moment before extinction. Everyone is under siege. Each community holds fast to its cultural identity. Yet ironically, as these twin images seem to suggest, both communities have much in common with each other.

Ferryquay Gate (Walls Series, 1989)

Ferryquay Gate, Derry, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
120cms x 193cms, 1989 
© Victor Sloan

What do we see? Yet again architecture is used as a metaphor for a state of mind. Here the Wall is represented by the foursquare Romanesque arches topped with balustrading: an image of stability, rootedness and the Old Order: an image of times past. On the original photographic negative the marchers were piercing through the triple archway, but Sloan’s interventions have hemmed them in – though they are looking outwards – in an embodiment of the siege mentality. Looking in from the outside is a representative of the British militia – a neat irony in that the Orangemen see themselves loyal to the British crown yet in the image it is the army which seems to be restraining them. This idea is reinforced by the heavy cross-hatched ‘netting’ which the artist had added. It covers not only the triple archway but also the entire area surrounding the bridge so that the known world seems to consist only of the bridge itself, and the people underneath and immediately in front of it.

Back to Part 1 of Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan