The Birches

The Birches is an area some three miles from Portadown en route to Dungannon. Using a medium format camera Sloan took ‘ordinary landscape photographs’. He also took a series of 35mm negatives whose subject matter was the Orangemen and the Blackmen (Royal Black Preceptory) and proceeded to ‘work’ on both sets of negatives. What he did next was to combine images from the two separate sets. He would place a negative from each set into separate enlargers, then project them and superimpose them onto the wall. By means of the aperture control he could manipulate brightness, thus controlling the intensity of each image by fading in and fading out. As he points out, you cannot control the balance between the two images if you simply sandwich the negatives into one enlarger - which is normal practice.

Turf, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

The paper used was matt, like good drawing paper, thus as with the Moving Windows series, quite subtle effects could be obtained in the watercolour application. The predominate tones are those of soft sepia, suggesting bygone ages, while the light rinses of blues, greens, pinks and yellows irrigate the sepia past tense with the landscape of the present tense.

If the typical Victor Sloan image of recent years had Orange Parades as its nominal focus, the present work takes that subject, lifts it out of its narrow focus in the Twelfth Parades, and places it firmly in the wider landscape of Northern Ireland, and frequently into a universal landscape. We are no longer dealing with a special occasion which has a broader relevance ; now we are dealing with the relationship of the Parade mythology and mentality as applied to the day-to-day existence of Northern Ireland; and as supplied to its history. Whereas a Paul Graham in his book Troubled Landscape will be aware of the Northern Ireland context but still produce rural landscapes which are deracinated of context, Sloan provides that context by his interventions. There is a slow seepage to the surface of the buried traces of history, religion and political conflict which landmine a seemingly innocent, rural, traditional landscape. This results in a state of tension, of unease; the land becomes threatening, dangerous, its peacefulness belied by the interference - like static on a screen - of the artist’s hand.

The scale of the works is large but has not increased noticeably while the technique, though more complex and adventurous than before, gives the impression of relaxation, largely because the millennial fervour of the two previous series is largely absent. In many ways the technical forays are close to the spirit of the thirties: the photomontages of a Heartfield; the sharply satirical caricature of a George Grosz; the overlapping dissolves of a European movie-maker. To be more precise, Sloan acquires the effects of these techniques, rather than duplicating them.

True Blues, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

Marcher, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

In many of the works a figure is partially superimposed upon a landscape: ghostly presences which do, and do not belong. True Blues, punning on Orange regalia and conservative attitudes, has regalia-clad marchers in various states of presence, wreathed by gaunt branches. The landscape is bleak and bare, the trees are stripped of their leaves, and a wide farmer’s gate barrs our entry into the landscape. Massively out of scale are the huge presences of the Orangemen. The central figure, the oldest of them, has an impositional solidity which suggests the territorial need to dominate while the other two, in varying states of ghostly presence, are like the keepers of the flame: spirits of history connecting past history to the present. Above and behind their heads a lambeg drum, complete with Union Jack, floats in the miasma: a symbol of the clarion call to Orangeism; and reminder that the Birches area is noted for its flute bands. As ever it is a question of identity. Does one impose an identity? Does it arise naturally out of the race memory? Does one need to fan the ashes or beat the drum to keep it alive?

In God We Trust, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

Marcher is a Grosz image translated into Sloan territory, its face deformed as if animalistic, seemingly wearing a balaclava or a gasmask, but with bowler hat and regalia intact. There is a group of images in this genre, not so much portraits in the conventional sense but rather psychological profiles; explorations of stereotypes. They are half-way between the self-portraits of Maurice Hobson who redefines the atrocity image by recreating the psychic penetration of an event - in his case the experience of being in a bomb explosion - and the portraits of August Sander whose grand ambition was to document the German people: the individual types as shaped by their traditions, their lot in life, their labours, their social class, and their generic temperaments. Sander’s technique is that of spare realism as applied by a ‘pure’ photographer. Hobson’s technique uses a non-naturalistic means to achieve realistic effects: he uses tableaux, superimposes, and so on. While closer to Hobson in technique Sloan’s aims approach those of Sanders. It will be intriguing to discover whether the artist pursues the possibilities of his ‘portrait technique in future years.

Royal Ulster Constabulary, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

Other works take a different tack. Peace superimposes Elizabethan emblems onto the landscape: an ‘Elizabethan Temperance’ banner, a lectern with bible; and a pillar inscribed with the word ‘Peace‘. It’s a neat conceit for a rearguard mentality. Animals also sneak in as bestial metaphors, notably dogs and a pony - a tack which is common to Northern Irish contemporary painters such as Dermot Seymour and John Kindness. There is an element of ironic wit in some of these conjunctions as when members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are juxtaposed with the rear end of a donkey in the same frame. Clearly the law is an ass so to speak.

Checkpoint, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

Another group of works sift into a different gear. Checkpoint for example with its highway code ‘Give Way’ sign hovering within a barbed-wire entanglement of scraking lines, and its arrowed signs, all of which are imposed on a ploughed landscape, is redolent of the Checkpoint Charlie vision translated to Ireland… memories of all those spy movies with their East European checkpoints. Works like these are about the need to assert territoriality, to assert one’s presence, to proclaim your identity, which in parochial terms for the narrow-minded; but which is then reinserted into the wider context of the world outside. The diehards have much in common with Eastern Europe - but who would have thought that the thaw in Eastern Europe would happen so quickly?

Seek Me, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

Landscape and portrait are commingled, the one reflecting the identity of the other. Seek Me shows us clearly part of the trunk of a tree wreathed with an interlace of ivy and leafless branches. Nailed to the tree is a biblical legend, typical of many, which can be found in similar positions all over Northern Ireland. The text reads: ‘The Lord saith, and ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart’. Jeremiah 29:13. Behind the tree is a piece of farm machinery, the wheel of which is prominent. If the image is closely scrutinised the ghostly figure of an Orangeman in regalia becomes discernible. He is wearing glasses and seems to be staring out at us.

What is being suggested here? Does the ‘Seek Me of the title suggest that the man’s atavistic identification with the land, is so strong that he cannot separate himself from it? Or does it suggest the opposite - that the man’s identity is slipping away, leaching back into a past when black-and-white attitudes prevailed?

In its cool sepia look, its classical framing (a curving diagonal almost bisecting the frame) and its seemingly traditional subject matter – a pallet of recently dug peat, straw, a rural landscape with creamy skies – this could almost be a photograph from one of the ‘little masters’ of early Irish photography such as Welsh, French or Alexander Hogg. But its attitudes, its tone and its means its means, are modern. Sloan no more believes in myths of rural romanticism or domesticity than you or I. Peat may indicate romantic boglands but the pallet indicates hard backbreaking work and cash crop.

The marchers proudly carry their Twelfth of July banners, asserting their Tradition, unbroken from King Billy to the present but the tone – undogmatic, questioning – asks the essential question of any tradition – is it still relevant to the here-and-now?

The means – the toners, the scrakes of hand-made mark – both assert and re-assert the nature of political commitment: idealism or intransigence: traditional strengths or archaic survivals. Thus the sky blends red, white and blue in loyal affirmation while the few scrakes that rend the surface suggest the possible fragility of the marchers’ position.

It is both a critique and a celebration; rather than a romantic gloss or tacky ‘promo’, Sloan is sufficiently committed to his heritage to explore it honestly, weighing up the freightage of the past but sieving it for the benefit of the present. Tradition cannot be blinkered, he seems to say: but its strengths are the building blocks of the future.

And Find Me, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

This is a companion piece to ‘Seek Me’. The tree may have vanished but the man – the same man as in the former work – has started to materialise. His hat and bowler hat have become substantial, as have his glasses. A handlebar moustache has also appeared: this is an old military type, complete with his medals. He is superimposed onto a marshy, reedy landscape. Behind his head is a stack of cut wood. There he stands, an upright foursquare plank of Unionism and Orangeism, a military metaphor.

So what does ‘And Find Me’ indicate? Has the Orangeman found the God of the Old or the New Testament? Has he found God at all? Is he fighting for his rights – his interpretation – or is he squashing the rights of others? The viewer is left to make up his own mind.

Dogs, The Birches, Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners and gouache, 58cms x 48cms, 1988

An image of the police, snapped in their own environment, has been superimposed onto the landscape environment of the Birches. The leather coats, peaked caps and guns, suggest not so much the police as the militia. As with Checkpoint there is a suggestion of an Eastern European atmosphere.

The police are set in the midst of a thick interlace of branches, as if in a dense brushwood. Another interlace, this time of hand-scraked marks, also envelopes them. Once again the image is profoundly ambiguous. Is the countryside inhabited by the police, or are the police the interlopers, desecrating the peace and quiet of nature?

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

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…

Extract from Thinking Long: Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland by Liam Kelly