Demonstration at the Castle

This series of works, scaled up to the size of large history paintings, provides a deeper perspective upon the Unionist siege mentality, exploring its ideology to lay bare the relationship between history and current attitudes. Whereas The Birches explored a number of mini themes, Demonstration at the Castle focuses tightly upon an ideology, in images which are dense, oblique and resonant. Like Drumming the works effortlessly contain an equipoise between abstraction and figuration, being richly satisfying formally and highly rewarding in terms of content. They also manage to be criticism in the true sense: an evaluation which is without bitterness, sectarianism or bile.

No Surrender, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 128cms x 170cms, 1988

Brownlow Castle, the local name for Brownlow House, is where the 1987 Orange Parade was held for the County Armagh area. The ‘field’ was actually the gardens of the house, and the word ‘demonstration’ refers to the assertion of strength and loyalty demonstrated by the parades themselves. No Surrender, one of the rallying calls of Unionism and Orangeism, elegantly encapsulating the sense of being trapped in time; or having nowhere to go; of living in a past which is no longer relevant. It depicts a No Surrender banner whose centrepiece is an oval portrait of a cavalier in armour and neck ruff. The image of the warrior has an effete quality, signalled by the blue eye shadow and the red lipstick which, together with the ruff and the antiquated armour, suggest the ineffectiveness of the No Surrender mentality today.

This head-and shoulders portrait, encircled by a swathe of white, gives it the quality of an enlarged Elizabethan miniature. A small boy, his back to us, is staring towards the figure. Part of his head is within the circle, as if to say that he has been indoctrinated by attitudes which date from the seventeenth century, despite the outmoded attitudes. Both the Orange Lodge individual, and the small girl, both of whom are at the bottom right, are faceless, representatives of the average person; of the masses. The man’s ‘face’ is rent by the cracks in the space-time fabric (cf Drumming), which is perhaps an indication that the older generation should bear the brunt of any criticism, whereas the girl’s face is ‘washed out’ as if brainwashed by the ideology.

Alarmingly the only face, which is seen, is that of the cavalier implying that the only living reality is that of the dead personage. Ideology holds sway but its results is the cracking open of the known world. The known world is neatly symbolised by the stone balustrading behind the flag: a bulwark mentality, which is beginning to crumble. It is also suggested by the large X which is scored across the cavalier’s face: it is ‘x’ as in the mark for the ballot box (vote to keep your own in power) or is it its opposite – a cancellation which suggests that this behaviour is no longer viable?

Bowler Hat and Umbrella, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache,128.9cms x 170.1cms, 1988

The scene in Bowler Hat and Umbrella is the balcony of Brownlow House where various speakers assemble to give speeches to the waiting crowd, including the two politicians who are pictured here. The heavy stone blocks and the shuttered windows of the mansion can be read as a reference to a traditional theme in Irish fiction, that of the big house – in this case one belonging to a member of the Ascendancy. The shutters suggest obsolescence: the mythology is out of date.

There is a penchant for black humour in some of Sloan’s work (think of the image of the R.U.C. and the donkey) which emerges again in this work. Two politicians are flanked by a circled, empty chair: waiting for Godot in the shape of a guest speaker. The chair, the two men, and the Union Jack flag are linked by scoring lines into a triangulation of obsolescence, trapped in their Union Jack mentality. Both the men and the flag are encompassed by a vortex or whirlwind, not unlike the transmitter effect in Star Trek. ‘Beam me up Scottie’, they seem to say, but to where? As for the guest speaker, the leader, is he really coming? Is it a biblical visitation, or will the assembled congregation and the acolytes continue to wait in hope, for the improbable?

Police Station, Lurgan, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 170cms x 129cms, 1988

Police Station presents us with a view of the Northern Irish fortress version of a station which, ironically, is not far removed from the architecture of some modern churches. Lurgan’s original station was blown up at the start of the Troubles. This is the rebuilt version, spouting a huge communications aerial dotted with closed-circuit television cameras. The building abuts a catholic area, and indeed there was considerable argument the time of its rebuilding as to whether it should be removed to an entirely protestant area. In front of the station we see the parading crowds who are within the Brownlow Castle gardens. Their unfurled banner depicting King Billy on his horse is directly in front of the building, partially blocking the view. This suggests an equation: the police are at one with King Billy who is riding at their head, the irony being in the anachronism of a seventeenth century horse rider being at the head of a modern police force. Once again the abstract gestural brush marks and the linear scraking calligraphy seem to rend space and time; the old order is changing even if the crowd is only dimly aware of it. Past and present, the old and modern, are forced into conjunction. King Billy’s flag abuts the communications tower; the state network of surveillance becomes patent in the calligraphic static which fills the atmosphere, but also snakes down onto the sash covered shoulders of the crowd. It is carnival time but the music is dissonant.

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

Portadown, silver gelatin print, toners, gouache, 170cms x 129cms, 1988