Following the change of political regime in Poland in 1989, an agreement was reached to withdraw the occupying Soviet Army. The last of the large military units withdrew from Borne Sulinowo in October 1992, and the town was transferred to Polish rule. The transformation of Borne Sulinowo from a hidden Soviet military base to an abandoned Polish town was part of the wider withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Eastern Europe. This was the largest military operation since World War II, and a process hastened by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, twenty-five years ago this month.
In the summers of 1993 and 1994, shortly after Eastern Europe began to open up to Western visitors, Irish artists were invited to Poland to participate in the Irish Days Festival. This event, organised by Wladyslaw Kazmierczak, Director of the Baltic Art Gallery in Ustka, Poland, celebrated Irish culture and gave Irish artists the opportunity to produce and exhibit work in the gallery and discuss their practice with Polish artists and curators. In 1994 Victor Sloan was one of thirteen Irish artists invited to participate.
The history of Borne Sulinowo, and its political significance, may not have been familiar to the Irish artists who travelled there during the summer of 1994. Sloan recalls an early-morning bus journey after a long night of Polish hospitality. Those who rose in time to join the expedition were not disappointed. For Sloan, this was a pivotal moment. What he discovered beyond the barbed wire, was a surreal hinterland where soldiers and their families had played out a myth of normality behind a veil of secrecy.
In the months since the Soviet Army had withdrawn, nature had begun to encroach and reclaim the streets. The surrounding forest appeared to be a rural idyll but, as Sloan discovered later, the whole area was heavily polluted and there was a persistent danger of encountering a mine or an unexploded bomb. The town was deserted apart from the police station and a small bar. The Soviet street names had been changed to patriotic Polish titles such as ‘Street of the Polish Army’, and scrap merchants were beginning to plunder anything of value.
Sloan was fascinated by what he saw and photographed the flotsam and jetsam that remained. The evidence suggested that the Soviets had left in a hurry. Food was left on kitchen tables and personal effects were abandoned. Sloan was particularly interested in the detritus that had been left behind. The photographs, propaganda posters, films, maps, books, ammunition and military badges: all abandoned evidence of what had once been a bustling, but isolated, way of life.
The indelible stain of the town’s recent history was evident not only in the chemicals and pollutants dumped there but also in the graves, both Soviet and Polish. Sloan’s camera recorded headstones with photographs of long-dead infants alongside military and religious symbols. In one image a religious statue watches over the untended graves. This Christian symbol, familiar in Poland, and Ireland, appears out of place here where the Soviet hammer and sickle officially reigned.
In an essay written in December 1994 Jürgen Schneider asked if the soldiers based in Borne Sulinowo were living as victors. Sloan’s bleak images suggest not. Damp and mould invaded the barracks before they were abandoned, and the need for secrecy imprisoned the soldiers and their families in the base. Russians were born and died in Borne Sulinowo and yet they were effectively itinerant people who had to abandon their homes at short notice. The historically strained relations between the Polish population and the Soviet army came to a head in 1990 when the Soviet Union finally admitted responsibility for the massacre of 45,000 Polish soldiers in 1943. For almost fifty years they had blamed the Nazis for the murders, particularly the mass grave at Katyn Forest where the bodies of 4000 Polish officers were discovered. Within this context, perhaps the secrecy that surrounded Borne Sulinowo was to protect the Soviet Forces rather than to control the Poles.
The images that Sloan produced when he returned from Poland are both extraordinary art works and a remarkable testament to a significant moment in recent European history. Although he took reels of documentary photographs in Borne Sulinowo, the resulting images are neither photographs nor accurate records of that encounter. Starting out as large photographic collages created using layered and manipulated images, each unique print was finished by hand. Laying the prints out in his back garden, Sloan worked on them with paint, toner and bleach until he was satisfied with the effect. The results are often surreal and always visually arresting. These are images which cannot be digested in a glance, and demand concentrated consideration.
In Statue a photo of the religious figure in the cemetery is inverted and semi-obscured by a mug shot of a soldier. Nature threatens to invade this hybrid image but is thwarted by the intense blue and sepia tones that dominate the series. Sepia suggests a bygone era, but the blue, reminiscent of the Russian military’s blue berets, stains like a radioactive dye, or the seepage of something toxic into the environment. In Slide a child’s toy and the faceless flats that housed families in Borne Sulinowo are framed by the dominating silhouette of a soldier whose features are hardly discernible. Mikhail Gorbachev is the leader in the art work of the same name. Has his face been ripped in anger or by accident? Brush strokes are visible, tinting his skin like a makeup artist preparing the leader for a press conference. The construction of history, especially, in an oppressive State, is made evident through the formal elements of these works.
In Map part of Europe has been violently torn from the whole. The image frames the reality of territorial division in this part of the world, where borders have changed with every regime and people have been displaced, resettled and displaced again within a generation. In Bars a training ground becomes a battle field. Blotches of bleach mark the rugged landscape in the foreground, suggesting bodies churned up by a post-war plough. At first glance the training bars of the title resemble the skeletons of burnt-out sheds. Elsewhere in Poland such sheds were the tools of Hitler’s final solution. Closer to home the marked landscape is reminiscent of the futile hunts through the bogs of Ireland for the bodies of the disappeared. The layered complexity of Bars, and other images in the series, permits the play of meaning. Despite their particular geography, the visual richness of these works prevents them from being confined to a particular place or time. Just as so much of Sloan’s work set in Northern Ireland, is, on closer examination, universal in its reach, so the Borne Sulinowo series reflects back onto Northern Irish history.
Writing about Sloan’s Northern Irish work in 1990, Brian McAvera observed, “His strength lies in his ability to transcend its local aspects by situating it within a universal theme: the interpenetration of the present by the past.” The Borne Sulinowo works are relevant within a Northern Irish context, particularly in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1994, when Sloan was working on this series. In both Poland and Northern Ireland, the most challenging question is how “we cope with the toxic legacy of conflict, of unspeakable and horrible actions.” The Borne Sulinowo series is about aftermath, demilitarisation and departure. As Aidan Dunne has written,
“The deserted Borne Sulinowo is a striking example of a problematic social space, like other environments Sloan has sought out. While there is no overt connection with the North, Sloan’s work acts as a quizzical commentary on the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland and, more, given a persistently prescient streak in his work, on the question of what sort of place Northern Ireland might be after the conflict. His work on the Polish material was encouraged by the IRA’s ceasefire in 1994. The pictorial detritus of the abandoned army town strangely parallels and prefigures the troop withdrawals in Northern Ireland and the questions that came to the fore during the prolonged interrupted negotiations.”
It is also significant to consider how Sloan’s experiences of living through conflict in Northern Ireland frame his creation of politically charged work about another place. We take it for granted that Northern Irish artists can, and do, create political work, but as Jürgen Schneider recently observed, “‘political’ art is marginalised in Germany where everything is dominated by the art market.” Without a significant art market to cater to, Northern Irish artists, have the freedom to make political statements that others shy away from. More importantly, Sloan has spent decades developing the tools, techniques and sensitivity to tackle political subjects. He is equipped to engage with the issues that are raised by Borne Sulinowo’s particular history. He recognises this liminal landscape and is comfortable in this contested territory.
Dr Riann Coulter, Curator, F.E. McWilliam Gallery & Studio, Banbridge.
1 – The other artists invited in 1994 were Cathy Wilkes, Brian Connolly, Sean Taylor, Alastair MacLennan, Maurice O’Connell, Sandra Johnson, Jim Buckley, Alice Maher, Eddie Stewart, Heather Allen, Pauline Cummins, John Kindness, Anne Tallentire and Jürgen Schneider.
2 – Jürgen Schneider, ‘Beyond Borne Sulinowo’, Victor Sloan: Borne Sulinowo (Derry, The Orchard Gallery) 1995, p. 5.
3 – Brian McAvera, ‘Marking the North: The Work of Victor Sloan’ (Dublin & York, Open Air Impressions) 1990, p.11.
4 – Aidan Dunne, ‘A Broken Surface: Victor Sloan’s Photographic Work’, Victor Sloan (Ormeau Baths Gallery/Orchard Gallery) 2001, p.116.
5 – Aidan Dunne, ‘A Broken Surface’, p.110.
6 – Jürgen Schneider email to the author, 21 November 2014.
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