Extract from Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland
by Liam Kelly
Victor Sloan has produced an impressive body of photoworks which act as a critique of the Annual Twelfth of July Orange marches which take place at various venues around the province. Marching here is a form of staking territorial claims, with the sound of drums and pipes beating in and rendering that claim, parading an ideology. And Sloan’s technique of scraping into the negative, and selectively and subtly overpainting the print, and selectively overpainting the print, parallels the inherent tensions and the demonstrative and resounding nature of that claim. The scraping, dancing static of line that the artist uses draws history into every image, allowing it to reverberate, call out and echo. Like Yeat’s liquid use of paint Sloan’s line journeys up from the past to the present, babbling out in a manic incoherent frenzy. Commenting on Walk VIII from The Walk, the Platform and the Field series (1986), Brian McAvera distinguishes Sloan’s techniques and strategy from news media photographic records of everyday events:
“His framing of the pictures emphasises the foursquare solidity and determination of the marchers: part of a never-ending triumph of the will… while his scraping 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.”
It is perhaps worthwhile comparing Walk VIII (1985) with Richard Hamilton’s The Subject (1988/90), in which the ceremonial sword remains just that, ceremonial, but the potential for violence and its ramifications are held within the ‘exploded’ detail of light, transferred to make up the left-hand section of this diptych. The correspondence in scale and composition to his earlier painting The Citizen (1981) while allowing some comparisons in the ideologies behind the respective image can all too easily draw the criticism of Hamilton, providing something of a balancing act of appeasement. Is Hamilton falling between ‘civilians’ and ‘barbarians’? But John Roberts, who has accused McAvera of only seeing Sloan occupying such a comfortable (liberal) world between ‘civilians’ and ‘barbarians’, reads Sloan’s subversive photographic work more in ‘committed’ terms. Bracketing him with the likes of Willie Doherty and Locky Morris, Roberts confidently states:
“They have resisted both the sentiment of the ‘atrocity’ image and the overheated imaginings of mythopoeic typification. In essence there is an intrusion of history as a space of ideological conflict and struggle (an empire of signs, so to speak) rather than a farce or inflated tragedy, in which the artist’s ‘concern’ is flaunted… Sloan’s adulterated photographs… pinpoints exactly that sense of costiveness that is the Unionist political mandate.
The title of the series The Walk, the Platform and the Field (1986) encapsulates the political space that Sloan is interrogating. The Walk is symbolic of freedom and protest (Protestantism); The Platform becomes the base of broadcast for political rhetoric (echoing all the way to Rome) and The Field is the emotional ground. Sloan’s next series Drumming (1986), continued with the same interests and met with both critical and popular acclaim. As the series title now suggested Sloan ‘drummed’ this annual occurrence beyond myth: the gestural marks now froze the still photograph into a silence that echoed beyond the day’s event. The nervous energy these works unloaded could embrace innocence, but above all, ensnare tensions. They cut new ground.
In Holding the Rope (1986), a little girl in white dress walks forward, assisting in the ‘celebration’. Sloan depicts her inclusion as an initiation rite, where the child unknowingly will thread a disputed and marshalled route as signified by the black-clad police who occupy the right half of the picture space. She will eventually enter the ‘field. Another work entitled Entering the Field (1986) indeed has an aura of a holy place. Religion and land always co-habit in Ireland. The sky is dominant (less than a spatial quarter for the land) and marks the ground below with its turbulence – like a sign from God. Trust in God, within loyalism, is seen to ensure freedom and righteousness.
In The Birches (1988), the artist applied the same overlay technique to explore more openly the landscape of rural Ulster – landmined as it is with the relics of history, religion and conflict. An apparently beautiful and peaceful region of small farmhouses near Portadown, the Birches, like other areas of rural Ulster, has deep traces laid down that Victor Sloan brought to the surface. Spectral images are always refusing to be laid down in his work, where his prospecting technique is always rinsing them up.
In Seek Me (1988), the biblical attached to a tree claims its territory and acts as a flashpoint for the field to embody the marcher (the Orangeman) – an act of miraculous transubstantiation and revelation as provided by way of the secrets of the darkroom. From the same series of work, both Dogs (1988) and Checkpoint extend beyond the local terrain of Portadown to carry a charge that is all too easily recognisable from periods of suppression in twentieth-century European history. They fall into line with other events in other places; other claims on territory. Along with Willie Doherty, Victor Sloan has offered us a new way of seeing, by way of persistent and ultimately penetrating manner of questioning…
Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland by Liam Kelly
This publication examines art practice in, and in relation to, the North of Ireland during a period of acute political and social change - from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It demonstrates that artists during this period sustained a penetrating enquiry into Irish cultural tradition and identities, producing art that is much more didactic and discursive that at any other time in Northern Ireland's short and problematic history. The work of some 80 artists in a wide variety of media is surveyed, all with full colour reproductions of their work. The book focuses on the work of 80 key artists:
Billy Adams, Denis Adams, Sophie Aghajanian, John Aiken, James Allen, Marie Barrett, Deborah Brown, Roderick Buchanan, Barry Callaghan, Anne Carlisle, John Carson, Brian Connolly, David Crone, Anthony Davis, Diarmuid Delargy, Fergus Delargy, Willie Doherty, Rita Donagh, Micky Donnelly, Rita Duffy, Felam Egan, Brendan Ellis, Brian Ferran, TP Flanagan, Barbara Freeman, Graham Gingles, Gerry Gleason, Douglas Gordon, Roberta M Graham, Richard Hamilton, Catherine Harper, Willie Heron, Anthony Hill, Michael Hogg, Ronnie Hughes, Patrick Ireland, Roy Johnston, Finbar Kelly, Sharon Kelly, Brian Kennedy, John Kindness, Richard Livingstone, Clement McAleer, Pádraig McCann, Philip McFadden, Colin McGookin, Moira McIver, Alastair MacLennan, Catherine McWilliams, Joseph McWilliams, Elizabeth Magill, Alice Maher, Michael Minnis, Alfonso Monreal, Locky Morris, Philip Napier, Deirdre O’Connell, Eilís O’Connell, Jack Pakenham, Mark Pepper, Kathy Pendergast, Clifford Rainey, Paul Seawright, Dermot Seymour, Neil Shawcross, Paul Sherrard, Bob Sloan, Victor Sloan, Nancy Spero, Nick Stewart, Una Walker, Louise Walsh, Martin Wedge, Alastair Wilson, Chris Wilson, Clive Wilson, David Winters, Gordon Woods.
Published by Gandon Editions