Marking the North

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

Belfast Zoo Series

Victor Sloan started his art practice as an abstract painter. He had always used the camera but it was not until 1981 that he began to use the medium systematically. However, he had no intention of producing ‘pure’ photographs for exhibition purposes.

“I want a photograph to say more than a photograph usually says. It’s not just a photograph in a magazine. It’s a statement…something personal. I want to make people to look at the image in a different way; see behind the image. People tend to dismiss photographs as just being photographs.”

It is clear therefore that Sloan is not simply interested in the formal qualities of the ‘well-taken’ photograph. He wishes to quarry the expressive potential of photographic imagery, not merely in the search for some form of pictorial beauty, but rather in the search for meaning.

To this end he uses many of the techniques of the painter:

“My images are the result of two reactions: an initial reaction to the subject; and a reaction to the resulting photographic negative and/or print (The latter reaction being explored by means of mixed-media techniques). If the original negative isn’t good, it’ll never be any good, no matter what you do to it.”

Sloan always works in series. The negatives for the Belfast Zoo series, which was his first major set of images, were taken at Bellevue, and proved to be the template for many of his recurring concerns. Although his intervention was limited to the cropping and the toning of the prints, the resultant images uncannily prefigure many of his later effects.

The subject matter is that of monkeys, viewed through theperspex of their cages. However the perspex itself was scored, scraped, scratched, and in places smashed, with the result that the finished prints anticipate Sloan’s use of such techniques on his later work. In addition, his use of flashgun at close range to the perspex results in shellbursts of light which also anticipate his later use of gestural mark-making. While it is true that the artist disclaims any social or political intention at this juncture – it was to be a while before he consciously began to interrogate his images – nevertheless, a number of these images function metaphorically as statements about Northern Ireland.

Belfast Zoo 1, silver gelatin print, toner, 25.5cms x 37cms, 1983 © Victor Sloan

For example Belfast Zoo I, reveals the legend ‘I.R.A.’ scraped into the perspex, encouraging a reading which would suggest that the Northern Irish are trapped by the I.R.A., like the monkeys in the cage. They can stare outwards but are incapable of effecting change: they are prisoners in their own society.

Belfast Zoo II, (Belfast Zoo Series, 1983)

Belfast Zoo II, silver gelatin print and toner, 29.5cms x 39cms,
1983 © Victor Sloan

In retrospect this image prefigures a number of those in The Birches series where portrait-style heads acquire animal characteristics. Animals are used frequently in contemporary Irish art to indicate bestiality. Again, the somewhat surreal tone of the image suggest later developments, as do the physical qualities of the image depicted. In all his later work -and increasingly so with each series – Sloan explored interventionist processes such as toning, using razor blades or needles to scrape and score, and making varied marks by means of watercolours and gouache. The close-up nature of this image, drawing attention as it does to the scores and smears on the Perspex of the cage, anticipates Sloan’s use of interventionist techniques

Craigavon Series

Craigavon is the name of a new town that was built mid-way between the towns of Lurgan and Portadown in Northern Ireland. Seen as an Irish equivalent of Milton Keynes (one of the most famous of the new post-war English town developments) the theory was that such a development would link together the populations of Lurgan and Portadown which were separated in terms of social class and religion.

Originally there had been considerable argument as to where the new town would be sited in Northern Ireland. Obvious sites, such as those in the Derry area, were overlooked in favour of the present siting. Furthermore, the choice of name – Craigavon– was surprising inasmuch as there was a theoretical desire to provoke reconciliation; to encourage a mixed populace. In 1921 Northern Ireland was created as a separate state. Sir James Craig, later Viscount Craigavon, became its first prime minister. As Robert Kee has remarked ‘it is undeniably that the government of Northern Ireland are to be blamed for the manner in which they conducted the affairs of their state in the half century which followed the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921’ (Robert Kee, Ireland: A History, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1980, p. 225). Craig remained prime minister for almost twenty years. The nature of the man and the inflexible nature of the state’s concerns are admirably expressed in a notorious statement made to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1934 when he remarked that he prized the office of Grand Master of the Orange Institution of County Down ‘far more than I do being prime minister…I have always said I am an Orangeman first and a politician and a member of this parliament afterwards…all I boast is that we are a protestant parliament and a protestant state’.

Community Minibus with Senior Citizens, Brownlow, Craigavon,
silver gelatin print and toners, 26cms x 26cms, 1984
© Victor Sloan

Craigavon was, and still is, an apex of incompetent town-planning. Anyone who drives through it is struck by the series of seemingly endless roundabouts; by the dismal series of scrublands, bereft of housing, which seem to connect many of the roundabouts; by the sub-standard housing, much of which has now been demolished. The empty, echoing distances are so great that senior citizens have to be bussed everywhere, whether to shops or other amenities.

Community Minibus with Senior Citizens, Brownlow is not a celebration of enlightened welfare policy; rather it is an oblique comment on the social construction of a new town, jocularly known as the North’s answer to outer Siberia! Careful observation of the image will reveal that there are, seemingly, bullet holes on the mini-bus door which have been encircled in red by the artist, much as police encircle scene-of-the-crime areas. These markings, which occur on a number of the works in this series, can be read in several senses: as a metaphor for the ubiquity of violence in the society; or as a suggestion that all of us, even the old and the infirm, bear a responsibility for the current state of affairs.

In general terms the Craigavon series is a marked step forward in the artist’s development. For the first time the raw data of his subject matter is the social and political arena of Northern Ireland. On a straightforward level his intention was to depict the new town of Craigavon but on a deeper level we witness the stirrings, not only of an emotional reaction to the subject matter, but also of a hesitantly articulated critique.

Thus the dominant cold, blue tonalities of the images suggest an emotional correlative: the observer at one remove; dispassionate; recording; attempting to register a distance from the subject matter. But at the same time the steely blue colouration suggests the coldness, the bleakness and the desolate air of a new town which is inimical to the warmth of humanity.

Fireworks Display, Halloween, Balancing Lakes, Craigavon,
silver gelatin print and toners, 26cms x 26cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

Individual images reveal various attempts to find visual correlatives which indicate that the seemingly innocent, everyday experiences of Craigavon life are imbued with a hidden context. Thus the skewered angle and diagonal framing of Fireworks Display, Halloween, Balancing Lakes suggest a state of unease; a displacement of the norm, while the presence of a police landrover, not far from the small knot of people, indicates the necessary presence of the security forces at even the most mundane events. The same work also has a small squiggle of red crayon on its surface – a reminder of the potential for bloodshed? – which is the beginning of Sloan’s use of free-form calligraphic markings.

In works like Band Parade, Halloween, Shopping Centre, the use of flash at close-up range has both a formal and a figurative function. Formally it anticipates Sloan’s use of techniques to bleach out areas of an image which he does not wish to keep (comparable to a landscape painter editing out sections of the‘real’ landscape for formal or expressive purposes). Figuratively, it creates ghostly presences which create a sinister atmosphere; a sense of being under surveillance. The subject matter, in this case a band parade, also prefigures the dominant thematic focus of much of Sloan’s later work in series such as The Walk, the Platform and the Field, Drumming, Demonstration at the Castle, and Walls; namely the Twelfth of July parades.

Shed, Balancing Lakes, Craigavon, silver gelatin print, toner and oil pastel, 26cms x 26cms, 1985 © Victor Sloan

Two other sub-themes emerge clearly in Shed, Balancing Lakes and Children Playing.

In the former, the graffiti-covered walls of a shed (cf. the recording of a solitary graffiti inscription in the Belfast Zoo series) mark an awareness of how graffiti, insignia, flags and emblems chart the political and tribal loyalties of a given district. In this case the U.V.F. (Ulster Volunteer Force) legend claims a territorial imperative for the loyalist, protestant paramilitaries. In ensuing work the artist will be alert to the signifying function of flags be it the Union Jack (British, but instead of the festive connotations in England, the flag indicates the Unionist determination to be a part of the United Kingdom rather than Ireland), the Tricolour (the flag of the Republic of Ireland), as well as badges (cf. the various badges worn by Twelfth marchers).

Children Playing, Pinebank House Community, Arts and Resource
Centre, Craigavon, silver gelatin print, toner and oil pastel,
26cms x 26cms, 1984.© Victor Sloan

In the latter image, that of a children’s playground, the sub-theme of innocence and experience emerges clearly. As Gerry Burns has remarked, even children’s games, ‘can assume an air of menace when viewed in this gruesome light’ (caption appended to this work in the Divisions, Crossroads, Turns of Mind exhibition). It is worth noting in this context that contemporary poetry, such as Seamus Heaney’s Blackberry Picking, frequently mines this thematic area as does much contemporary Northern Irish painting – in particular the work of Gerry Gleason.

Finally, there is an indication of what was to become a Sloan trademark: the creation of an ominous, almost surreal sense of atmosphere. In Statue Unveiling Ceremony, Tanaghmore Gardens, a statue which is completely draped, sits in front of a hedged and tree-filled background. No humans are present though a mayoral car is prominent. The draped figure could be a human being – if it wasn’t for the title we would have no way of knowing – and it suggest the opening of some strange performance rite; a portent of unease. Interestingly the aforementioned Gerry Burns has suggested that this image may be an echo of the so-called Blanket Protests of 1979-82 when the H Block prisoners, who had refused to wear regulation prison clothing, went naked in their cells with only blankets to cover them.

Road, Rathmore (Craigavon Series, 1985)

This housing estate no longer exists: its flat roofs leaked: its aluminium windows didn’t fit properly. Some houses had the bedrooms downstairs and the living accommodation upstairs. In other areas compatible to this one, such as Brownlow, people built a sloping roof onto the flat one, so as to give themselves an attic. Many of the houses had ‘back’ doors at the side rather than at the back, and were without gardens. In another climate, or in another culture where the people were not so conservatively minded, such housing estates might have succeeded. But the lesson is to build houses for people and not for architects.

Road, Rathmore, Craigavon, silver gelatin print and toners,
26cms x 26cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

On the road leading into this estate, we can observe a carefully inscribed piece of graffiti: ‘Smash H Block Now!’ Graffiti is ubiquitous in Northern Ireland, Road versions, such as this one are common. The reference is to the prison compounds or detention blocks at Long Kesh which were constructed in the shape of an H. The paramilitaries of both sides objected to the H blocks as they were part of a British governmental policy, which included the removal of political status from their organisations. Opposition was strongest in the Republican camp, resulting in the Hunger Strikes which left ten men dead in 1982.

As with the Loyalist strike of 1974, an event which paralysed activity in the North and resulted in the downfall of power-sharing, the two communities moved closer to civil war.

This reference image prefigures many of the themes and formal aspects of Sloan’s later work. The tiny graffiti reference, observable in Belfast Zoo VI, has been amplified into a running concern. The small red circles, added in crayons to indicate bullet holes, were borrowed from television reports on television but suggest the ominous events that lurk behind the ordinary texture of life. Drama and dreariness are artfully juxtaposed. The stains on the road, abstract markings which could possibly read as blood from a body, anticipate the abstract gestural markmaking of later work. Tension is in the air. However, what these early works also indicate is a readiness to use illusionistic space; to play with a depth of field. This would soon disappear.

Band Parade, Halloween, Shopping Centre (Craigavon Series, 1985)

In the North, quotidian events can take on an atmosphere of menace or a sense of the sinister. This image alludes to this quality in its handling of the flashgun. The artist was so close to the individual at the bottom right that he was bleached out; transformed into some ghostly presence.

Band Parade, Halloween, Shopping Centre, Craigavon,
silver gelatin print and toner, 26cms x 26cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

Interestingly, this work cunningly prefigures the highly abstracting aspects of Sloan’s work from The Walk, the Platform and the Field onwards, in that the surface image is reduced, essentially, to the central figure, sandwiched between a broad swathe of glossy black surface, and two areas of bleached-out white. The formality of much of Sloan’s work later work is present, as is the sense of a tightly compressed space. Another trademark, that of the ambiguous use of detail, is observable in that the mace, belonging to a band member, looks as if it is in the hand of the central figure, thus suggesting an alliance between the marchers and the onlookers.

Moving Windows Series

If you think about it, the title of this series is both a pun and a paradox. It is a paradox because windows are usually thought of as being stationary as in the phrase ‘a window on the world’. Through the window you see a ‘view’, framed and thus ordered; tamed; made safe. It is a pun because moving can be interpreted in a double sense: in its literal sense of a window which moves, as in a car window; and in its metaphorical sense of something which ‘moves’ or stirs the emotions. The twintrack aspect of the pun and the unsettling nature of a paradox (especially G.K. Chesterton’s rationale of focusing upon the apparently trifling or commonplace before extracting a paradoxically meaning out of it) are inherent in Sloan’s working methods. In terms of the ‘twintrack’, the baseline is the straight photograph, a photograph which records. The unedited, mechanistic aspect of this documentary-style record is emphasised by the artist’s use of an autofocus camera, and in the manner in which he captured the shots: taken while driving around Northern Ireland with a camera in one hand, and snatching shots. Most photographs after all, as in the designation ‘snapshot’, are images which capture a fleeting moment but are deprived of context. Editing - the juxtaposition of one image with another – can provide a context – as can the intervention of the artist with respect to either the negative or the print. In this case, the intervention is in the shape of toners and watercolours.

The paradox emerges in the relationship between the subject matter, and the treatment of same. The baseline for all of these images is profoundly quotidian. Whether a shop, a car, a bus shelter or a road is in view, the actuality of the things depicted is the stuff of our monotonous, everyday, common existence: the brutal facts of ordinary life. However, the artist’s purpose is to reveal the sinister, the suspicious, the surreal dislocations and the latent violence which lurk underneath the backdrop of normality. In this sense the angle of approach, and the subject matter, is akin to the provincial scenes of novelists from Balzac to Simenon with their evocation of stagnant little towns where everything significant happens behind closed shutters: the Irish equivalent would be the short stories of a Northerner like Patrick Boyle with their cast of dour suspicious countrymen, and their harsh, often ironic scenarios.

The basic material – the photographic templates – were taken as Sloan went about his everyday travels in the North, driving through the counties of Tyrone (where his parents lived), Antrim where his wife’s family lived) and Armagh where he himself lived and worked. This regional odyssey was viewed, literally, within the frame of two distancing elements: that of the autofocus camera, held at arm’s length; and that of the window-frame, be it windscreen of side panel. It was then re-viewed and re-presented through the media of toner and watercolour. In fact most of these images are the equivalent of watercolours painted upon a printed image.

What, you may ask, is the thematic rational behind both the subject matter, and the treatment of it? In terms of the baseline prints, taken from a, moving car with an autofocus camera, the nature of contemporary Northern Irish society is revealed in that cars and cameras are viewed with suspicion. There are notices at army checkpoints forbidding one to take photographs; and many’s an unwary photographer has had the experience of soldiers descending upon him or her in response to a snapped image. Furthermore, the view through a window (often with front and back window and side-mirror in operation) suggests inevitably the omnipresent surveillance techniques in the province. Another analogue would be Hitchcock’s Rear Window…

Furthermore the undramatic, unsensational nature if the baseline images – no photojournalistic opportunities depicting bombs, burnt-out buses, destroyed streets or dead bodies – makes the argument that the media image of the North is distorted and false. Against such simplifying rhetoric is poised the critique contained in Sloan’s work.

Initial reaction to this series of works was contradictory on two fronts. Gerry Burns, for instance, argued that ‘no attempt (was) made at composition’ whereas Belinda Loftus commented that ‘all of these photographs (sic) have a very strong formal element with the geometric shapes of car windows, steering wheels and mirrors cutting into the prints, generally giving them firm compositions’. Burns also considered that ‘the locations…could be virtually anywhere’, whereas Loftus stated that the works were ‘intensely localised photographs’. These two sets of comments are reconcilable, essentially because they confuse the subject matter with the means. Sloan has stated that he has taken large numbers of photographs without giving a thought to the composition, but he also stated that, for the finished series, he wanted every image to have a part of the car within it, thus ensuring strong horizontals and verticals. Shooting from within a car also limited the framing opportunities whilst the interventions in terms and watercolour determined, at the least, the interweave of tonal relationships.

Notions of locality (an indigenous bedrock) are easily squared with universality in that while the subject matter – bus shelters, roads and the like – are shot so that they could, in theory, be anywhere from Craigavon to Carlisle, two factors intervene to register the intensity of locality. The first factor is the sectarian graffiti, while the second is the intervention process: the markmaking and the colour-coding.

In terms of the artist’s oeuvre, the series is important on two counts. In the prescient phrase of Brendan Carolan, his ‘images penetrate the safe confines of windscreen and side panels’ – an insight which indicates the growing awareness on the part of the artist as to his mode of working: the ability to take the quotidian which is universal, and then illuminate its hidden agendas in a manner which allows us to grasp the universal application. Secondly, Sloan’s use of colour acquires a marked complexity. Moving Windows marks an apogee: the colour is sensual, painterly, almost lush, and in marked contrast to the subject matter; so lush in fact that it frequently overbalances the images, suggesting an uncertain balance between form and content. As the critic Jill Nunn suggested, he was in danger of producing ‘neat little art objects with a political sting in their tail’. But Sloan was never likely to descend into prettiness or pure painterliness. Succeeding work swiftly disregarded excessive visual ripeness, opting instead for sinew; for a muscular, astringent intensity of vision.

War Memorial (Moving Windows Series, 1985)

War memorials, reminders of the heroic deeds of the past, are superfluous in Northern Ireland. We have too many dead of a recent origin: lives lost because of an ideological ‘war’ which has spilled over into self-righteous abominations, committed by both sides. Like Shop, Dungannon, the image insists on a strong feeling of surveillance: the thick horizontal of shiny black, flanked by the shapes of car seat headrests, indicate the warmth and security of the car interior from which the unseen viewer peers. He or she is so close to the window that the filaments of a heated rear window are clearly visible

War Memorial, Dungannon, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache,
23.5cms x 23.5cms, 1985 © Victor Sloan

However, this work has none of the immediate rhetoric of Shop, Dungannon: no bombs, explosions, or bursts of light. Instead it is the nature of meditation. The rainy weather insulates the viewer from the crispness of the real image; the objects on the rear window shelf-actually child’s toys and seat headrests – function like abstract shapes, while the blackness of the car interior contrasts with the pink and yellow tonalities that infuse the outside atmosphere. Unlike a documentary photograph, this kind of image indicates what it is like to live in Northern Ireland. It does not reproduce a surface. It creates a mood, an attitude and – in the use of the war memorial - an iconic authorial comment on the use, and abuse of ‘High Art’.

Shop, Dungannon (Moving Windows Series, 1985)

Through the side window of a car we view a row of shop windows, at night. By a happy accident, the product of a slow shutter speed and a slight camera movement, an after-image occurred. As it happens, one of the shops belonged to the artist’s father, and had been bombed a few times. Perhaps that associative train produced the interventionist development of the after-image for, with the use of toners and watercolours, the effect is now of an explosion taking place in the shop doorway which has triggered a conflagration in the adjoining window space.

Shop, Dungannon, silver gelatin print, toner and gouache,
23.5cms x 23.5cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

The strong framing provided by the side window of the car, and the thick black areas representing the car interior, strongly suggest the presence of the driver who may, or may not have been the instigator of the explosion. Either way the motif is one of surveillance. What the reproduction cannot indicate is the contrast between the casual brutality of the subject matter, and the ripe painterliness within which it is clothed.

The Walk, the Platform and the Field

Less than twenty years ago it was still the custom to view Impressionist painting in terms of retinal stimulation. Books such as T.J. Clark’s The painting of Modern Life: Manet and hisFollowers (London 1985) and exhibitions such as The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886 (Washington 1986) re-orientated our attitudes, alerting us to the fresh approaches and to the new expressiveness evolved in France to deal with the subject matter: the iconography of Modern Life. Put simply, it was the striking formal aspects of Impressionist painting which dominated most assessments of their work. It was to be a long while before the content of their work was examined.

At the other end of the spectrum work which had a strong political and social context, and which was firmly rooted in an indigenous context – such as that of Diego Rivera – was immediately accessible in terms of content to the local audience but needed the patient, contextual excavation of critics before it travelled to an international audience: the formal and aesthetic qualities travelled easily but there was a timelag before the meaning of the work became clear to a non-local audience.

When faced with the work of Victor Sloan (and that of many other Northern Irish artists) these considerations need to be borne in mind. The aesthetic impact is there for all to experience but the work can become deracinated – and thus the meaning can be skewed – if the context is not appreciated. Most people know Northern Ireland through media images of The Troubles. These images are probably overlaid with Tourist Board images of Ireland in general, as large numbers of individuals outside Ireland do not distinguish between Northern Ireland, which is a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland which is not. These two sets of images – the photojournalist Troubles variety (be it on newsprint or on television) and the Tourist Board version - are selling viewpoints. These viewpoints are simplified, distorted, and highly selective. They give the appearance of a documentary ‘reality’ but they bend the truth. Sloan’s images eschew the neat-and-tidy graphic image. They are a critique of simplification.

The Walk, the Platform and the Field is the first major sequence of works by this artist which attempts to tackle a crucial area of Northern Irish experience. Such work broods upon the interconnections between the accumulated ideas and incidents of Irish history, and history-in-the-making: the present tense of The Troubles. It broods upon the relationship between politics and historical processes, and the interplay between traditions and religious affiliations. As all of Sloan’s subsequent work, to date, extends outwards from the baseline laid down in the present series – the Twelfth of July parades – some context is necessary.

The traditional Marching Season, that is the Twelfth of July Parades (also called the Orange Parades) occurs during the ‘Twelfth Fortnight’ every July. It celebrates the victory of the protestant King, William of Orange (William III) from the ‘tyranny’ of the catholic King, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Over a hundred years later the Orange Society, now called the Orange Order was formed in 1795. Its motto ‘I Will Maintain’ was the family motto of the Dutch House of Orange.

Attitudes to the Orange Society, like attitudes to history itself, are the stuff of mythology. Consider the following quotations. The first is from an official Orange Order pamphlet called Why Orangeism (by Brother the Reverent Dr M W Dewar, 1959): ‘A century passed, and the cause of militant Irish Roman Catholicism, suppressed at the Boyne, found new support from the politics of the French Revolution and the aggressions of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was now the threat to Britain’s peace and security. Not for the last time the ‘two Irelands’ reacted differently to ‘England’s extremity’. The succession to the thrown had been securely established in the House of Brunswick, today called the House of Windsor, ‘being protestant’. During the 1780’s, long before the Irish Rebellion of 1798 brought these smouldering hatreds to a flame, attacks by Roman Catholic terrorist bands upon their protestant neighbours were frequent. Now these included such bodies as the ‘Defenders’, and later the ‘Ribbonmen’ who waged guerrilla warfare against the ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’ and other protestant protective organisations. But three years before the ’98 (i.e. the rebellion of 1798) Orangeism itself was reborn in a new form among the apple orchards of Co. Armagh…’ (p.13)

Compare this to the comments of the historian Robert Kee in his book Ireland: A History: ‘The original Orange Society…had been simply a reorganisation with Masonic overtones of an agrarian and working class secret society called the ‘Peep o’ Day Boys’. This was so named because it was much given to terrorising catholics out of their homes at dawn, ‘papering’ their doors with notices saying ‘To Hell or Connaught’, an injunction to remove themselves south and west which they were inclined to obey when they saw the barbarous punishments, such as kneecapping, inflicted on those who did not.

At the time of the United Irishmen and their attempt at rebellion in the years 1797-98 – a confusing time because it was one group of presbyterian radicals who originated the idea of bringing protestant and catholic Irishmen together in one national denomination – the authorities, while disapproving of the Orangemen’s wilder excesses, had also seen the advantages of exploiting secretion prejudiced to the full’. (pp. 137-8)

Two more quotations, from the same sources, will have to suffice as regards the chasm separating attitudes to the Orange Order. According to the Order it is ‘a powerful inculcation of tolerance, impressing on every member the duties of brotherly kindness and charity, and forbidding the injuring or upbraiding of any man on account of his religious opinions… The errors and superstitions of Romanism (i.e. Catholicism) are not less dangerous now than when our Order was founded’ (p.3) whereas Robert Kee, while pointing out that the Orangemen’s official constitution spoke of brotherly love, toleration and loyalty to the Crown, also stated that a Royal Commission noted, in the wake of sectarian riots in Belfast in the 1850’s, that ‘in spite of this the uneducated and the unrefined, who act from feeling and impulse, and not from reflection, cannot be expected to restrain the passions excited by the lessons of their own dominancy and superiority over their fellow subjects whom they look upon as conquered foes’.

To put it simply the protestant Orange Lodges in the North of Ireland feared that they would be subsumed into a catholic majority within the whole of Ireland. This is why there was continuous opposition to the concept of Home Rule which would have severed the link with Britain. This is why Lord Randolph Churchill referred to the ‘Orange card’ as being the one to play when he was mobilising support against Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. By this he meant, as Robert Kee remarks, that the best way of opposing Home Rule was ‘to use the energies of the protestant Orange Lodges with their traditional fears of the catholic majority’.

With the creation of the state of Northern Ireland after partition the Unionist Party, which was protestant, effectively took control of the state. The catholic viewpoint is admirably summed up in Michael Farrell’s book Northern Ireland: The Orange State (2nd edition, Pluto Press, London, 1980) when he remarks that ‘to put in perspective the recent emergence of “working class” Loyalist organisations such as the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) requires a full appreciation of the power of the Orange ideology, which was originally used by the Unionists to establish their own control over the protestant population, and has now assumed a virulent life of its own’. (p.11)

It is important to note that the foregoing quotations are meant to indicate the ‘Irish disease’ of living the present in terms of the past. They indicate the tribal loyalties and the subterranean wells of memory, folk memory and revisionist mythology. They do not however typify the protestant population as a whole, nor the catholic population as a whole. Furthermore, while the recognition of the so-called ‘two traditions’ (i.e. catholic and republican/protestant and loyalist) is useful for an understanding of the historical situation, it needs to be stressed that there are numerous overlapping ‘traditions’ in the North which do not divide neatly along religious or sectarian grounds.

Although the Twelfth Parades, in some cases, have been used as an assertion of territoriality – the triumphal marching through catholic areas – they are clearly an assertion of identity. In peaceful times they have a carnival atmosphere. The major evening paper in the North, the Belfast Telegraph, always publish a special supplement for the annual event: one which always reveals its outward manifestation, that of a celebratory event, a festive occasion, a spectacle for all the family. Gloved and bowler-hatted gentlemen with ceremonial swords, sashes and banners glittering in the sun march to the sound of accordion, bagpipe and Lambeg drum. Flute bands skirl, batons twirl skywards, and the streets are lined with spectators.

As a child the artist always went to such occasions. As an adult he brought his own children to them. They would have been difficult to avoid as they passed near his house. It was, as he says, ‘natural’ for him to go to them. When he started to make work on the subject his aim was ‘to try and show the parades …why they’re there…what they’re doing’. Ironically he also thought that what he was showing might be violence against the Orangemen. In fact, while some of the images ‘read’ in this sense, I believe that the opposite is really the case.

But before progressing to a commentary on the work, some terms need explaining: they are those which are used as titles for the individual works in the series.

The Walk: bandsmen march. The Orangemen walk to the Field.

Field: literally a field where they all congregate for the speeches.

Assembly: the Orangemen arrive from different towns and assemble before going on the walk.

Route: there are always problems in organising where the parades will walk. In mixed localities which are potentially flashpoint areas, police and army will patrol. Certain areas may be off limits.

Platform: usually a lorry or lorries placed in the field. The worshipful masters stand on the lorry platforms and make speeches as do politicians and clergymen and other guest speakers.

Victor Sloan registers all these varying aspects. He takes dozens of 35mm negatives, then selects those he can ’respond to’. With the aid of a magnifying glass he works directly on the negative, scratching it with a pin, ‘painting’ the negative with paint, which will crack, or with black ink either diluted or undiluted, which he will then dab off or on. Undiluted black ink for instance will register as a white area on the print. Such work is painstakingly performed with the aid of a magnifying glass. When the negative is worked to his satisfaction, it is then printed up, cropped into a square and occasional touches of gouache may be applied: colour heightening the reinvented black and white image.

Field I, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
45.5cms x 45.5cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

Sloans’s techniques are remarkably flexible, being a synthesis between a modernist desire for abstraction and the traditional emblematic image. Field III for example, nominally a parade going under an archway and thus a traditional emblem of Unionist and Orange stability, is treated as if it were an abstract surface. Field I, a dense calligraphy of slashes, becomes a visual pun : a ‘field’ of marks as in a grassy texture, created for the Orangemen as well as the literal field used for platform speeches.

Walk VIII, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
45.5cms x 45.5cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

Again, a work such as Walk VIII presents us with the traditional emblematic image: a bowler-hatted loyalist almost fills the frame, his figure running from his elbow at the bottom left, diagonally through to the edge of his bowler hat at the top right. The face is turned towards us, offering the diagonal made by his body but reinforcing the marching diagonal. The face itself is that of a calm, firmly fleshed, middle-aged man. He is conservatively but elegantly dressed in a suit, white shirt and carefully knotted tie: the picture of sobriety; of the perfect civil servant. His role, that of the Loyalist, the upholder of the Orange Order, is stressed by his regalia: bowler hat, gloves curved sword and sash complete with the number of his Loyalist Orange Lodge. The inferences that we are meant to draw are clear: decent, honest, upstanding,’ defender of the faith’; upholder of traditional Orangeism, and thus Unionism.

This at any rate is the documentary side of the image which stresses the emblematic regalia. But Sloan has evolved a series of strategies which would (whether consciously or unconsciously) suggest a different perspective. His framing of the picture – or to be more precise his cropping of the image in conjunction with the framing – emphasises the foursquare solidarity and determination of the marchers: part of a never-ending triumph of the will. This solidarity and foursquare placing is reinforced by one of the uses of the artist’s mark making, that of cancellation: almost all of the original image on the left hand side has been painted out.

Colour is used symbolically. The use of black, from the diagonal swathe of the shoulder to the shadowed face with its cavernous black eye sockets, its black left side, and its head topped by a black bowler, proclaims the duality of man’s nature – good and evil; black and white – while Sloan’s scraking use of the pin on the original negative, a series of violent diagonal slashes echoing the ceremonial sword, provides an externalisation of the violence that lies dormant behind the festive surface (to scrake: Ulster idiom meaning ‘to score or scrape over’).

These slashes reinforce the emblematic references to man’s dual nature, for the pin as it scrapes through the black ink which has been applied to most of the original left-hand diagonal area, folds over the ink to form a parallel slash in white. As we peek over the man’s shoulder, into the tiny area untouched by the ink, we can see tiny shadowed faces, their hats white like halos, steadfastly bringing up the rear. They are ‘of the faith’, believing in their cause…but the halos imply an ironic subversion of their message.

Walk 1, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
45.5cms x 45.5cms, 1985.
© Victor Sloan

Again and again this subversion of the image occurs. In Walk I for instance a sash-clad Orangeman walks diagonally towards us but his body is bisected by an arm, which is trust in front of him. This independent arm, as if unhinged from its owner, wields an umbrella which has been heavily overscored as if it were a sword which had slashed repeatedly through the air: an iconography of violence. The white washes of ink weave in and out and around the man, indicators of an irradiating energy, a field of force drummed up by the music, awaiting the tinderbox spark which will turn it into violent action.

This notion of latent violence, trapped and crystallised by the music of the drums is made manifest in Walk IV where, in between the serried ranks of Lambeg drummers, feet outraised in marching step, there is a veritable confetti of incised lines overdabbed with red and blue squiggles of gouache, fracturing and rending the air: wardrums – ironically referenced this time by the red, white and blue symbolism if the Union Jack flag. Sound, that of the war drums, is made visible, pictured in a manner which is, in itself, a metaphor for latent violence.

Walk IV, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
45.5cms x 45.5cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

In this series of works, almost all of Sloan’s previous themes enmesh. The sense of an ominous, foreboding atmosphere which is a visual correlative for a state of unease is heightened in these works. In terms of subject matter the parade imagery has come to the forefront but is subjected to a much more searching and comprehensive interrogation. References to graffiti, emblems and symbols increase markedly. Formally however there are two opposing strategies at work. In terms of colour, the approach is towards simplification. Compare Moving Windows to any of the present series. With reference to mark-making however the techniques become more complex. Any given mark frequently functions on more than one level. It may cancel part of a previous image; highlight a section of an image; of act as either a metaphor for, or visual representation of, an idea or an activity (sound becomes externalised for example; likewise the implicated idea of violence). More and more Sloan focuses on his work into frontality; even into a single plane.

His exploration of the social and political arena is dense, layered, oblique and resonant. In terms of theme he jettisons the blunt, sensational, graphic images of photojournalism, and seeks for the authenticity of art. In the process the innocence of children and the experience of the adult world are beadily observed (see Assembly I or Route I). Visually his images find an equipoise between abstraction and figuration which locks the abstract areas into the figurative aspects of an image in a manor which insists on meaning.

Assembly 1 (The Walk, the Platform and the Field Series, 1985)

In a quieter, almost tranquil vein, harkening back to the Victorian values of the pictorial, the artist focuses upon the genre image of two children in a garden, mussed by sunshine, who are sitting on a white curiqued seat, in front of a stone façade which is over-reached by a dense canopy of greenery. This cliché is then subverted, becoming in the process a meditation upon a particular strand of Irish history, brooding upon the connections between past and present, and making an ironic statement on the Irish tendency to live past history in the present.

Assembly I, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
36cms x 35cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

To the right of the image stands a loyalist banner, hung from poles, and fluttering in the wind. Its legend reads, in good King Billy parlance, ‘No Surrender’. The ubiquitous black ink has been applied, resulting in the edges of the banner dissolving into whiteness, like some ghostly visitation from the past. Other brushed areas of ghostly white, indicative of the wind – both the real wind and the wind of the past seem to emanate from the history painting of the banner, linking up with the ‘highlights’ on the foliage, like a faded photograph from some long-forgotten album, and also rhyming with one of the two figures on the seat.

Both of these children wear sashes. One of them is ‘real’, a formal presence staring out at us. The other is incorporeal, a spectral emanation in white; a ghost from the past. The pair of them are surrounded by a rough scaffolding of positive/negative pin slashes, like a wooden trellis-frame; or a canopy without its covering. This frame serves, not only as a peepshow into their childhood world, but also as a way of yoking together the currency of Orangeism, imbibed at youth, in generations past, and present. Tiny red squiggles on the foliage, and on the banner, emphasise the potential for violence which is ‘in the air’ that these children breathe…

The head which appears on the banner will return in a number of images over the succeeding years, most notably in No Surrender.

Walk X (The Walk, the Platform and the Field Series, 1985)

Dead centre, splitting the image, stands a uniformed policeman with a peaked cap. He is in profile, staring tight-lipped at the parade, feet apart in a rooted stance, symbol of law-and-order but also, unusually for the North, of impartiality, indicated by his dead centre stance. From the left a huge Lambeg drum, strapped to its unseen owner's chest, juts out across the body; but it has been rendered semi-transparent so that the outline shape of the policeman can still be seen.

Walk X, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
45.5cms x 46cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

On one level this drum functions as a musical instrument, the rhythmic 'keeper of the beat'. But the unhinged arm, wielder of a timpani-like drum-stick, indicates not only the wardrum call, but also the potential of the drum-stick as a weapon. On another level the drum is like a Jasper Johns’ target with its concentric circles of black, white, black and white again for the heart of the target. The paradox is that the policeman who has often been seen, in the eyes of Catholics, as the defender of the Protestant tradition, has now become a target for his own Loyalist people (the police being a largely Protestant force.)

Route IV (The Walk, the Platform and the Field Series, 1985)

Route IV, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners and watercolours,
36cms x 35cms, 1985
© Victor Sloan

A festive crown of sightseers gaily decorate a walled roadside in the countryside. They are watching the parade which is approaching them, though we cannot see it. A knot of small children play at the roadside. Two rows of chevron bunting soar across the road, anchoring themselves in the trees. This festive decoration, which is in the shape of an elongated V, is echoed both by the markings on the roadway and the zig-zagging energy of scoring marks which seem to emanate from the oncoming parade. It’s a good example of latent violence of the Twelfth being made patent. The tiny curliques of red and blue gouache, linking up with the white sections of the image, provide a triumphalist gloss. The colours of the Union Jack, a flag which means one thing in England but something else in Northern Ireland. Is seen as an assertion of protestant loyalism, and a denigration of Gaelic patriotism.

Read Part 2 of Marking the North - the Work of Victor Sloan