Art Review, London, 17 October 1989

Victor Sloan - Walls

Orchard Gallery, Londonderry

When history with all its bias and fabrication has been absorbed into the bloodstream from birth, there is no hope that it can be unlearned. A sense of historical consciousness among Irish people in general is very high, but much of such history is far from factual and will remain so until social change undermines its instrumental function. The long predicted demythologising of Irish history has been a long time in gestation and still seems a long way off.

What then are we to make of an exhibition such as the one currently on show at the Orchard Gallery in Londonderry? “Walls” is the work of Victor Sloan, one of Ireland’s leading photographic artists, and at first glance might appear to be a rather clichéd exploration of part of Northern Ireland’s historico-political arena. Here we have Orangemen, those stout defenders of Protestant liberties, interminably on the march, banners flying, and drums beating. Here we have Derry’s famous walls, in themselves a cultural image for both the city’s divided communities. In a visual environment where most public architecture is so commonplace as to become almost invisible, the walls of Derry stand heavily charged with significance in relation to the everyday lives of the city’s inhabitants, and indeed the lives of all of the people of Ireland.

What can an artist do with images such as these in order to get us to look beneath the surface of what is being presented? Indeed, is it even possible for an artist working with such strong local images to put across a statement or series of statements, which will have any kind of universal appeal? The answer is an unqualified ‘yes’. The images on show here are no mere clichés. In the artist’s hands the clichés have become subverted and in turn have become a commentary on the divisions which bedevil Irish society – the ‘walls’ that divide the two local communities also divide the past from the present. This in itself is an ironic comment on the Irish tendency to live past history in the present.

In many ways ‘Walls’ is a view of life lived under siege. In the city of Derry, the Protestant minority live their lives under siege from the city’s Roman Catholic majority; in Northern Ireland itself, the Catholic majority are under siege from the Protestant majority; while in Ireland as a whole the Protestant minority are under siege from the country’s Catholic majority – a siege within a siege within a siege!

Victor Sloan’s powers of observation, which have been clearly demonstrated in a number of previous exhibitions, present this sense of tension combined with vulnerability with considerable force. Many of the images that he uses, while at first glance appearing commonplace or superficial, are far from simple. On various levels the walls which divide the communities in Northern Ireland are historical, cultural, political or, sometimes, merely fanciful. But the walls of division which exist between individuals, groups or communities in society today are certainly not peculiar to the Irish situation and this is something the artist clearly wishes us to recognise. Victor Sloan is a former painter who now works on 35mm negatives, scraping out part of an image and using paint or ink directly on to the negative. When the negative has been printed up, he uses toners and watercolours in order to highlight and heighten aspects of the final printed image. It is a flexible technique and, in this case, a surprisingly effective one.

Sloan’s images, both the obvious and the obscure, highlight his concern for the subtle disposition of cultural layers. There is a fluid use of time and space in the juxtaposition of historical and modern references, hints of a past culture subverted and transposed by modern influences. Above all, there is a sense of history, if not time itself, having been transcended.

‘Walls’ is a fascinating exhibition that deserves to be widely seen. It marks a further important step in the development of an artist who clearly has the ability to break new ground. It will be very interesting indeed to see which direction he takes after a series of exhibitions that have explored various aspects of Northern Irish political life through images which are both multi-layered and concise, oblique and yet accessible. ‘Walls’ gives us plenty of examples of Sloan’s technical virtuosity but this never allowed to overwhelm or intrude unnecessarily, and overall the multiplicity of technique serves to draw the viewer in and to add a continual element of surprise.

Gerry Burns

View Walls images