Victor Sloan: Walls

Extract from Victor Sloan: Walls catalogue published by the Orchard Gallery, Derry, October 1989.

Victor Sloan: Walls

Anniversaries are not about the past, they are about the present. They are events which establish, affirm and, at times, re-order contemporary social relationships through the manipulation of the discourse of history. Anniversaries are dependant upon this discourse but they are different from it. They may be used as a pretext for the re-writing and re-ordering of history, but the difference lies in the attempt to break out of the social limitations of that discourse. The traditional, linear, mechanisms of history, the text and the tutorial are enhanced and displaced by the advent of the television documentary, the exhibition, the march and the parade. On the one level, the narrow field created by an anniversary enables certain elements of the historical discourse to become more commonly known through the use of different media. On one level, certain kinds of anniversaries are attempts to transcend the historical discourse. To replace history with history, discourse with experience.

The noun “anniversary” is defined, in the Oxford English Dictionary (1983) as, “The day on which some interesting event is annually celebrated. ME.2 The celebration which takes place on such a date; orig. a mass in memory of someone on the day of his death”. There are three distinct areas defined here. Firstly, a numerical system by which the beginning, length and division of the year is fixed, the calendar. Secondly, a historical event, a death, a battle, a siege, the storming of a prison. Fragments of historical debris picked out and given a meaning in discourse. Thirdly, a contemporary event. The event is made up of elements. In the case of Orange parades, speeches, the route which is taken, the public display of symbols and regalia, loud band music. These elements combine to form a language with its own dynamism, function and logic. A language whose legitimacy lies in its relationship to the written discourse of history.

The relationship is not fixed, but shifting. Lord Macaulay’s “History of England” explains the history of the Siege of Derry (1689) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690) as acts of great significance. In the history which is celebrated by the Orange Order, this significance is affirmed. Macaulay’s history was published originally in 1848 and was last reprinted in1957 Ian Paisley the Democratic Unionist M.P. and churchman recently bemoaned, “the 15 volume ‘Oxford History of England’, a series hailed as ‘the most authoritative general history of England’ dismisses the event (the siege) in some dozen lines.” The shifting ground of “authoritative” history enhances the importance of certain events and diminishes that of others. This is a disconcerting experience for those groups who celebrate events whose importance is diminished. This shift undermines the legitimacy of the act of celebration. On another level, the elements which make up history may be re-ordered as to change the meaning of the anniversary from that proposed by the celebrants. The most extreme example in this context is the statement on the tercentenary issued by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Their press officer described the struggle initiated by the 13 apprentice boys in Derry as “an act of truly revolutionary self-determination which can only be admired.” These shifting relationships between contemporaries and fragments of history are fought over to legitimise the anniversary celebration. The celebration acts to secure that legitimacy in the public domain.

These celebrations observed and recorded in numerous photographs by Victor Sloan in Londonderry on the 12th July 1988, were organised by the Orange Order to celebrate the victory of King William III of England at the Battle of the Boyne. The exhibition will take place in 1989, the tercentenary of the siege of Derry. The relationship between the Orange Order, the Battle of the Boyne and the Siege of Derry is problematical. The cause of the problem can be seen in the myths of the Orange Order. One particular story can serve as an illustration. During the Siege of Derry, the Jacobite forces shelled the besieged city from an orchard belonging to a Protestant colonist called Strong. This historical fact is the opening through which the meaning of the siege as a contemporary signifier can be seen. “Strong contributed £1,000 to the (Derry) garrison’s expenses. His descendent, Sir Norman Strong, in 1980 still held at his house, Tynan Abbey, County Armagh, two I.O.U.’s for the loan, signed by Colonel Mitchelburne, and reckoned that with unpaid compound interest since 1689 they must now be worth some £60 million. In 1981 the IRA broke into Tynan Abbey, murdered Sir Norman and his son, and burnt the house.” The importance of this story cannot be underestimated; it appears constantly in the account of the siege. Firstly, it illustrates the dominant relationship recognized in Orangeism, that of objective lines of decent and consanguinity. It is an almost linear relationship; the years can literally be counted up in terms of compound interest. Secondly, it relates the struggle of the past directly to that of today.

This conservative linear history creates a problem for the Orange Order. It demands an account of the 100 years that lie between the Siege of Derry, the Battle of the Boyne, the events in which it claims its roots, and its actual foundation at Armagh on 21st December 1795. Its very existence as an established order represents a break in the linear tradition. This break must be repaired by Orange historians. In 1988 Peter Robinson, Democratic Unionist M.P. for East Belfast published “Their Cry was ‘No Surrender’ – An account of the siege of Londonderry.” In it, he talks of the “soul” of history. Ian Paisley, in his introduction, takes great care to place the book firmly in an empirical tradition of history, but continued to talk of the “spirit” that informs it. The “soul” and the “spirit” are the abstract routes, by which the history of the Orange Order can transcend the discontinuities apparent in its commanding metaphor of linear descent.

In 1866 Richard Lilburn, Editor of the Armagh Guardian and an Orangeman wrote, “Orangeism; its origin, constitution and objects.” “Orangeism” becomes the historical glue which welds the events of 1688-89 to the history of the Orange Order. He explains the events in terms of a linear series of causes and effects, and the twin oppositions of Protestant/Catholic: Constitutional monarchy/Absolute monarchy. The leap is then taken to the establishment of the Orange Order in 1795. This involves not only a leap in time, but also a leap out of the recognisable discourse of European history. Lilburn states, unequivocally, that the causes of the Orders foundation are to be found in the French Revolution. The French Revolution is not described in terms in which Thomas Paine or even Edmund Burke could understand. It is, in fact, “The second great struggle for Popery.” Exactly the same “Popery that had sought to undermine Protestantism in 17th century Ireland.

The establishment of the Orange Order occurs during that period of history when the oppositions of Lilburn’s historical analysis are being undermined in both the context of Europe and Ireland. The United Irish slogan “Ireland will only be free when the last king is strangled with the guts of the last priest” cuts across those oppositions. Yet it was through absolute/constitutional monarchy; Catholic/Protestant that the ruling classes in Ireland had established themselves. Through the maintenance of those oppositions that they were determined to keep it.

Resistance to the ideas of the French Revolution was general throughout Europe. Those ideas had to be translated into the political language which pre-dated them. Therefore, in Ireland the effect of those ideas could not escape the Catholic/Protestant opposition. It was, and is, the aim of the Orange Order to explain all events in these terms. To do so, it must diminish the importance of new oppositions thrown up by discourses other than the religious; bourgeois/aristocratic, working class/middle class, male/female. Alongside this aim is the need to continue to order society, not in terms of man’s relationship to man, but in terms of mans relationship to God. The Orange Order is a mechanism to achieve those aims. The marching season, with its climax on July 12th (the twelfth) is a major part of that mechanism.

There is no carnival which does not have some element of political import, nor is there an anniversary parade which does not have some element of carnival. Carnival is hedonistic; it is about how people enjoy themselves, not who they are. An anniversary parade is about who people are. The nature and the strictness of the relationship between these two elements is revealing. It reveals the political meaning of the celebration and the contemporary importance of that meaning. An Orange parade is organised by the local Lodge of the Order. In the country districts, this allows for considerable flexibility as to where the march may take place. In Derry and Belfast, the marches tend to be organised along roughly the same route every year. The various lodges from a district will raise money to pay for bands which march along the route. Money is also required for the traditional dress of the members. A colourful sash, which takes its form from 17th century dress, is worn over a modern suit with bowler hat and gloves, which date back to the Edwardian period when the Orange Order was instrumental in the resistance to Home Rule. This form of dress could be described as a uniform but strictly speaking is not. The Orange Order, despite having need of the symbolic power of a uniform must avoid appearing as a private army. If it were generally perceived as a private army, it could be divisive within the Order itself. As importantly, it could provide a pretext for state intervention into its affairs. The bands march and the men walk behind large, colourful and attractive banners. These are another major expense. It is important to realise that the financial element is in itself symbolic. It symbolizes the wealth which the Orange Order can muster.

The banners commemorate significant events or people in the history of the Order. These latter tend increasingly to be Orangemen who have been killed as members of the security forces by the IRA. As they are carried around the walls of Derry, these banners are testament to a symbolic relationship. The walls today are surmounted by modern military installations as they have been since 1969. The Greek revival architecture of the gates has been defaced by barbed wire erected to prevent grenade attacks on the security forces below. This barbed wire was erected to protect the police and army from attack, from the walls. This in itself is indicative of the peculiar position of the Orange parades as they march around the walls. Derry is not the same city that held out for so long against the forces of King James. Then it was a small Protestant planter town. During the 19th century, the industrial revolution drew Catholics workers into its environs. The 1871 census confirmed the religious denomination of the town as 11,421 Protestant, 13,821 Catholic.

This bright and noisy musical parade marches along a route worked out in advance with the police. The route is symbolic for it is a test of power of the Orange in manipulating the state. The police have the power to ban marches. If a Lodge wants to march through a Catholic area, the test is two-fold. Whose wishes will the state uphold, those of the marcher or those of the local inhabitants? If the march is allowed to go ahead, will the local Catholics react? Will they ignore the invasion of their territory by a large number of well-organised and noisy Protestants, or will they react noisily or even violently themselves? The relationship between those celebrating and those not celebrating is all-important. The defining element of the relationship is fixed before the parades have begun. The rules of the Orange Order explicitly prohibit Catholics from becoming members. Only Orangemen may walk in the parade.

Once the parade has passed along the route, it arrives at the “Field”. At the “Field”, the bandsmen and the walkers rest and listen to speeches made by senior members of the Order, Unionist politicians and Protestant clergymen. Resolutions are carried. The Londonderry Sentinel (19/7/89) “Resolutions focus on Loyality, Faith and State.” Loyality to the British Monarchy, faith in a Protestant God and the coherence of the Northern Irish state. The element that runs through all the speeches and resolutions is that the struggle for these values is the same as that undertaken by King William at the Battle of the Boyne and the people of Derry throughout the siege.

Thus, the Orange Order presents itself as it marches around the walls and through the streets of Derry on July 12th. It is observed by its own members and by those, it sees as its natural followers. It is observed by those citizens of Derry who are excluded by religion from taking part and by those who simply chose not to. Some observe it with indifference, some avoid it, some ignore it. It is re-presented by the media, local, national and international. It is re-presented by artists such as Victor Sloan.

The representations in the newspapers depends on how those papers view the Orange Order. The Derry Journal produces two issues a week. During the week of the Twelfth, it had no photographic coverage of the Orange parades. It had only two reports concerning the Twelfth. The first was contained in a historical section entitled “Chronicle and Comment”. This described the anniversary of Hitler’s move on Danzig. It went on to relate the events in Derry during the same period. One a speech by a Protestant clergyman concerning the Protestant falling birthrate, the other a speech by a Unionist M.P. at the “Field” telling Orangemen not to employ Catholics. The second report was about Gregory Campbell, a Democratic Unionist councilor on Derry City Council. He was speaking to reporters about the meaning of the siege of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne. He claimed that the events of 1689-90 secured the freedom of Protestant and Catholic alike; therefore, to celebrate them today should be seen as a threat to no one.

The other local newspaper, the Londonderry Sentinel is published once a week. Their coverage of the Twelfth celebrations was comprehensive. There was a front-page photograph with a full four inside pages given over to photographs and reports. The photographs could be placed in four main categories. “Team photographs” of bands; the progress of the march; sentimental family groups; Orangemen relaxing after a hard days marching. A headline bore the message – PROTESTANTS FACE THE SAME TODAY AS IN 1690.

The national newspaper coverage of the Twelfth was dependent on the ability to see the Orange marches as directly and simply part of “the Troubles”. The possibility of exciting photographs of street violence was promised at Keady, Co. Armagh. The local Orange Order district had decided to hold its march in this mainly Catholic town. Representations had been made by the inhabitants of the town to have the march re-routed. These had been turned down by the police and the march was to go ahead. A large number of local and foreign pressmen descended on the town in anticipation of a good story and even better pictures. In the event, there was no trouble. Despite a great deal of press interest, very little actual coverage resulted. Only the Independent carried a front-page photograph the next day. An Orangeman lay in an ungainly fashion across the grass at Keady.

These instances of photographic coverage, or non-coverage, by the press suggest that only those papers which were editorially at ease with the aims of the Orange Order could respond using realist representation. In the Londonderry Sentinel the photography carried several important messages: the importance of family relationships to the Order: the organisational strength of the Order, carried in the many photographs of marching men; the fact that the Twelfth was enjoyable. None of these were at odds with how the Order would like to be seen. The Sentinel’s headlines placed the subjects in a context both political and social which justified the event. A reported speech from the “field”, IRA “FASCISTS AND GANGSTERS”. A general summary of the celebrations – SUNSHINE SWELTERS IN A SEA OF COLOUR. The London press had a more ambiguous attitude. Initially expecting comforting pictures of a foreign society in strife, reassuring the home based readers of their own stability, they were to be disappointed. No paper save the Independent chose to cover the parade as “colour”. Since its recent foundation, the Independent has sought a reputation for stylish photography. The Keady photograph is undeniably a “good photograph”. It employs the irony and paradox typical of the Independent when it covers subjects with which it has an uneasy relationship. Satirising the Orange Order’s ideal of the Ulster Protestant, as upstanding, decent and respectable, with a photograph of a sprawling Orangeman allowed it to cover the parades without simply projecting the positive image presented by those parading. Comparing this approach to the non-coverage of the Derry Journal suggests that it requires a certain distance from the subject to be acceptable. The pressing and immediate political importance of the parades in Derry rules out the ironical approach for those opposed to their meaning. Press photography is not a plastic media. Anniversarial parades present a simple and positive public image of the celebrants. Realistic press photography offers, with only rare exceptions, a stark choice between coverage and non-coverage. This choice is determined by the editorial stance of the media towards the celebration and celebrants.

The difference between an artist and a newspaper photographer lies in the process of production. The news photographer supplies raw material to a process, which demands photographs that convey a simple set of meanings in a unified dynamic image. The images must be produced at high speed. This speed imposes a uniform process of development controlled by an agent other than the photographer. The editorial process of selection is in the hands of a third agent. All three agents are working within a system defined by the need to produce profit. The photographic artist works within a system determined by profit but one in which the effects of this motive are distorted by state intervention. This distortion allied with the difference in the way an artist is exploited, and exploits, for profit give the artist greater freedom and control at all levels of the process. This freedom is not inherently beneficial nor is it infinite. The danger is that the products of photographic art can produce a mass of blinding kaleidoscope images just as unenlightening as the simplicities of photojournalism. Victor Sloan produces his work by intervening at every stage of the process of production. He takes a large number of monochrome 35mm negatives. He then selects those he will work on. Using a magnifying glass, he works directly on the negative, scratching it with a pin, painting it with paint or black ink. This is then printed. He then paints the print with gouache or watercolour.

Sloan’s technique of producing images ”writ large” on the photograph immediately draws comparison with realist photography as a whole, in the gallery as much as in the press. It is because his subject matter overlaps with that of the media that his work contrasts with photojournalism. The striking difference is the level of commitment Victor Sloan has shown to photographing Orange Parades over a number of years. The media covers the activities of the Orange Order only when they correspond to the construction of “the troubles”. The interest at Keady was indicative of this. The parades as covered by Sloan are not dependent on an understanding of “the troubles”. He appears to study the parades as a powerful and important element of Northern Irish society. The Orange parades, whether in the countryside around Portadown or within the walls of Derry, are not simple subjects. Sloan seems to claw his way through a complex process of production toward an image that convey the meaning of the parades and his reaction to them. This process has produced a mode of representation that is equal to the subject. It is equal to the subject because it does not attempt to be so. The complexity of the finished images belie any attempt to read them as final or absolute statements.

The excitement of Victor Sloan’s work lies in the difficulty with which the viewer is faced in trying, if only for a moment, to produce a single all embracing statement about it. In Derry City, Portadown, in London and beyond, the power of simplicity, whether as a saleable commodity or a comforting lie is all pervasive. In such a world, an artist who attempts to see the complexities and invites his viewers to do the same is involved in no parlour game, but an act as revolutionary as thirteen young boys shutting a gate.

James Odling-Smee

View Walls images