12 October – 23 December 2023
‘Beyond’ is a mini retrospective, covering photographer Victor Sloan’s work from 1984 to 2023. It includes observations from the north of Ireland, along with records of his travels through Europe and West Asia. Three motifs recur and dominate the show: signs of national identity; history contained within underused and abandoned buildings; and the persistence of nature within the context of urban decay.
The longest wall of the gallery has three grids of 12 photographs, with four alternating large images. These four untitled works from the 2006 series, ‘Luxus’, differ from those accompanying them, nodding towards non-figuration. The artist’s use of bokeh highlights certain features – a short strip of warning tape, a radiator, a section of tiled wall – while their context is denied satisfactory recognition.
The three accompanying groupings are thematic. The first, from the 2000s and early 2010s, focuses on West Asian culture, made in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Golan Heights, plus a number from Augsburg, but also with middle eastern content. These are mostly portraits and include headdresses from Lebanon, one with the traditional use of coins for decoration, and in another a smiling man gazes out, wearing a red and white shemagh. The photograph of a section of damaged mosaic flooring shows that destroyed elements were once images that have been replaced with randomly placed tesserae. The purpose, if any, behind this iconoclasm is unclear.
The second set consists of black-and-white photographs made in Germany and Poland in the mid-nineties. Here, natural forces impose their presence on battered Berlin walls; with wire reinforcement and tagging, a deified Lenin is placed pathetically behind the bars of a fence, and in Poland, a warplane sits rusting in an ugly park. Trees feature in all these flashbacks to the then recently dismantled Stalinism, with ahistorical nature mocking remnants of human history. Sloan’s photograph of the enlarged version of Käthe Kollwitz’s Mother with her Dead Son (1938), located in the Neue Wache in Berlin, shows a large halo of light behind her, giving a hint of Christian identity to this secular Pietà.
The third grid is made up of 12 photographs from 2010 of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, made just four years before it closed its doors. The photographs, bereft of human presence, hint at impending desertion, but evince its activities over the years. In addition to a couple of external shots, including the hotel’s signage and its now-lost giant thermometer, all others are interior images. These include a long shot of a staircase, looking down to the checkerboard floor (echoing the one in the gallery), to the white light from the door, enclosing the yellow of an ornate lantern. This image is reminiscent of the famous long zoom in Hitchcock’s 1946 film, Notorious. Other photographs from this series are of closer details, including a map, behind reflecting glass, of parts of Lebanon and Syria, a bar table with the staining of years of wet glasses, examples of both professional and amateur marquetry, and a charmingly toy-like minimalist telephone.
As well as Sloan’s hometown of Dungannon (including the first photograph made with his first SLR, of his father’s shop), Belfast features prominently. A 2008 series looks at the then abandoned Harland & Wolff Drawing Offices. The paint flaking from grubby neglected neoclassic decorative features gives them the appearance of the ancient world to which they refer.
In a 2019 stand-alone piece, the much-admired but tragically neglected brutalist car park in Belfast’s Corporation Street is loomed over by the less impressive Royal Mail building, like the school bully intimidating the scruffy gifted kid. Alongside are images of the Peace Walls from 2019. There is a surprising elegance to the concrete walls with their steel cladding, while the graffiti and tagging add visual vulgarity. Again, trees assert their presence among these aesthetic battles.
Sloan is best known for his scratched, coloured, bleached images, mostly looking at the ceremonial activities of the Orange Order. There are two very good large examples of these, but the works in this show may come as a surprise to many who were unaware of the broadness of his oeuvre. There are many more beyond this show, of which few will be familiar. One hopes that a sizeable gallery or museum will soon give us a large-scale survey show to redress this.
Colin Darke is an artist based in Belfast.