Those who remember Victor Sloan’s ‘Walls’ exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in 1989 may be a little surprised at his new show there, entitled ‘Borne Sulinowo’.
The ‘Walls’ series was a series of large photographs of Derry’s walls as the site of the 1988 Twelfth celebrations. Before printing, Sloan scratched the negatives with pins and other sharp implements, making marks which highlighted or obscured parts of the images. With violent strokes he masked faces, erected barricades, slashed drums and generally created chaos from the disciplined order of the parade.
This was not, though, simply an act of angry iconoclasm, defacing images of one side of our divided society. Sloan once said, It’s not a Protestant or loyalist viewpoint; its me as a human being. Because of my upbringing I can relate to the Orange background. I’m not an Orangeman myself. I question it all, although I do have a certain admiration for their faith, determination and stubbornness”. In asking himself these questions, he was challenging us all to do the same.
The current Orchard exhibition marks something of a change in direction for the artist. They come from two visits he made to the Polish town of Borne Sulinowo in the summers of 1993 and 1994. The town was for many years used as a base for the Russian army until they heredity abandoned it in 1992. Since then it has become a virtual Marie Celeste of a town, with wrecked military vehicles scattering the landscape, soldiers’ forgotten belongings, even the remains of meals sitting on dining tables.
Amongst the flotsam and jetsam, Victor Sloan found a number of photographic images, mostly of Russian soldiers, which had been defaced by angry and bitter locals. The connection with his own work was obvious, and Sloan was further struck by the similarity in the lives of the Polish and Irish peoples, saying that Poles like us, had ‘lived their sufferings’.
The result is this series of photographic works, found photographs re-photographed and treated with colour, and abstract markings which highlight the ravages of the vengeful Polish people.
The top half of Gorbachev’s face has been torn away, but Sloan has wittily beautified the photograph, by tinting his lips pink, just as the Russians have always done to idealise images of their leaders. A soldier receives the same treatment, his battered face given the same lips, along with baby-blue eyes and blond hair. Touching up the photographs in this way has the effect of exaggerating the original vandalism. In another piece, a young soldier has his face obscured by a superimposed photograph of some of the ammunition he and his comrades left behind.
Sloan makes reference to other aspects of Poland’s oppression, through religious iconography - a broken statue of Christ is superimposed on the face of another soldier, which can on the one hand represent the religious intolerance of the Russians or, on the other, act as a symbol of defiance against that intolerance. Economic oppression and ‘Big Brother’ uniformity is seen in Sloan’s combination of a soldier and a block of small run-down apartments. Military images, printed from army training films found in the town, along with photographs of graves of soldiers and children (themselves containing photographs of the dead), illustrate poignantly the reality of the recent history of this Polish town.
While Sloan was working on this series, the ceasefires here were announced. This clearly gives the work a significance beyond the original intention and, while direct comparisons are rarely useful, the underlying optimism of Sloan’s images must strike a chord with anyone living in the north of Ireland.