19 May, 2010

Sean Hillen, Irelantis

In this essay, written last month for an Art History class I review the exhibition, at the Alliance Française, in Dublin, of Sean Hillen's Irelantis series of photomontages.

It is strangely fitting that the exhibition of Sean Hillen's Irelantis photomontages appears in the cafe of the Alliance Française, on
Kildare Street, in Dublin city centre, rather than in a private art gallery. The purpose of the Alliance Française corresponds, in a curiously satisfying way, with the objectives of Hillen's work.

The Alliance is a small outpost of French culture - maybe even a slightly idealised version of French culture, like the Paris of Jeunet’s Amèlie - within the context of Irish cultural life. So Hillen's Irelantis series of photomontages - taking as its source material John Hinde's 1960s postcards of an idyllic rural Ireland - nests one Ireland of the imagination within another.

The cafe setting of the Alliance is doubly appropriate, in that its air of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, its clean white walls and stripped floorboards, call to mind the kind of modern eateries that became ubiquitous during Ireland's boom, and are now receding from all but Dublin's poshest streets. Hillen's Irelantis represents not only the vertiginous dreams of the late 1990s and early 2000s that suddenly became possibilities - like facts just newly discovered - but the chimerical nature of those possibilities, the sad truths behind those facts.

Sean Hillen is a Northern Irish artist, born in Newry in 1961. He studied at Belfast College of Art and then the London College of Printing and The Slade School of Fine Art, in London. He became known for his LondoNewry photomontages, in which he used elements of his own photographs of everyday life during the Troubles, in Northern Ireland, and transplanted them into tourist photographs of London. Some critics foun
d this work unsettling and aggressive, and even political in its outlook.
Hillen denied this and subsequently, with the Irelantis work, sought to distance himself from what he perceived as a dead-end, creatively:
‘I was representing the fantasy, postcard London, alongside the cruel reality that the comfort, that power to write this image of oneself - indeed all cultures - are built on savagery of some kind, and that the whole thing is circular. I wasn't saying this was fact or reality. I was just asking 'how would you like this situation on your street? - trying to project the viewer into my experience of confronting a number of conflicting realities at once.’
The medium of photomontage recombines elements from various photograph sources to make new works of art. The earliest juxtapositions of photographic images date back to the Vict
orian era, with darkroom experiments. However, photomontage proper developed with the development of the mass popular press and the emergence of the Dadaist movement in the 1920s, when artists like John Heartfield used photomontage to make powerful, graphic and critical statements about contemporary society and politics.

Art critic David Evans proposes a number of lenses through which photomontage can be seen. For example, 'montage' is a german word to describe the way an Engineer fits component parts together:

'Describing oneself as a photomontage artist, therefore, was a calculated provocation in which the traditional distinction between aesthetic and industrial activities was collapsed.'
Evans's other lenses refer to the humour and revelry implicit in photomontage and the visual (and actua
l) scavenging necessary to craft such images. Sean Hillen is distinguished from other artists by his frequent use of elements from his own photographs and his insistence on traditional crafting - using a magnifying instruments and a scalpel - in an era when sophisticated digital means exist to accomplish similar ends.


In a review, for Creative Camera, Stephen Bull described Hillen's Irelantis as 'a guidebook to a fictional country and simultaneously the story of how it was created' and it is inviting to consider Irelantis as a commentary on the development of modern Ireland. Irelantis was published privately as a book, by Hillen and a group of patrons, in 1999, gathering all the pieces to date. As Fintan O’Toole suggests in his introduction, Ireland was catapulted from pre-modernity to post-modernity, without dallying in modernity.

The exhibition at the Alliance Française features Hillen’s original montages, although some of them - presumably those in private collections - are laser-printed reproductions. This produces an interesting effect, since much of the impact of the original pieces relies on the visibility of their manufacture. The pieces - each of which is about A5 or a little larger in size - are uniformly framed, unlit, and displayed at head height on the walls of the café.

An apocryphal story has it that the original of Sun, Sand and Cement in Temple Bar (1997) (left) hangs in the office of Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach of Ireland. This would be apposite in many ways. During his time in office, Ahern was a infamous for his close ties with the construction industry. The redevelopment of Temple Bar in the early 1990s was a forerunner of the many constructions projects throughout Dublin city centre, which changed the landscape of the city and greatly enriched the construction industry.

In this work, a Mediterranean beach sits within Meeting House Square, at the centre of Temple Bar. The title itself hints at the artificial, human forces behind this transformation. It is a reimagining of a run-down part of Dublin's city centre, in a commercial new way. It could be read as a paean to the tiger capitalism that was to re-engineer the city in its own image, but given the mischief of Hillen's vision, it is more likely that it pokes fun at such pretensions.

In his 1939 essay, Avant-garde and Kitsch, Art critic Clement Greenberg proposed that the cultural avant-garde provided an improving counter-force against the lowering of standards and quality produced by the generic, monoculture of industrial mass media. Greenberg termed this mass culture kitsch. Although he later recanted some of his theories, the concept of kitsch has proved to be compelling.

Kitsch has come to be synonymous with saccharine cuteness, but Greenberg defined it as 'vicarious experience and faked sensations.' For Greenberg kitsch was rooted in the generic as opposed to the specific.

Hillen's Irelantis photomontages draw heavily from John Hinde's garish picture postcards of rural Ireland, the imagery of which, writes Fintan O'Toole in his introduction to Irelantis, 'was impossibly nostalgic even in the 1960s, before the modern transformation of Ireland.'

Many of Hillen’s mages, such as The New Road, Finglas (2005) (above), certainly work with the idea of kitsch, but they avoid campness by steering away from over-the-top, irony-laden sentimentality towards vertiginous fantasy. By superimposing scenes from Europe's grand tour on idyllic images of Ireland Hillen seems to be trying to embody the choices that comprise the creation of national identity, culture and context, society and myth.

The New Road is also characteristic of a melancholy (or at least ambiguous) theme running through Irelantis. Road-building in Ireland has a tragicomic meaning in the context of recent history of Irish local and regional development, where it can symbolise connection to the outside world, conducting economic prosperity, but also the demeaning of the natural world, bureaucratic incompetence and the evacuation of generations of young people.

The Oracle at O'Connell Street Bridge (1995) (left), an interesting triple-layered work, makes explicit the ambiguity within the Irelantis project. In the foreground, sits the Oracle at Delphi, just off O’Connell Street Bridge, which occupies the middle ground. Over this more-or-less idyllic urban-mythical scene - which places the heart of divine wisdom in Ancient Greece at the centre of modern Dublin - towers a phalanx of ominous, glass-fronted skyscrapers, under a hellish sky.

Given the date of the work, it is a stretch to consider it as casting doubts on the then-burgeoning economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger. However, The Oracle echoes Hillen’s comments about his LondoNewry collages. The Oracle ironically seems to ask which is the real oracle in this image, which gods are being revered by this society and the cost of worship, the sacrifices (even if not immediately obvious) that are demanded. Events have overtaken this work and cast the matter in no doubt, but today it seems eerily prescient of the then future.

Sean Hillen’s work is intelligent and thought-provoking. There is a remarkable clarity and consistency of theme throughout his oeuvre. Irelantis seems to be a well-percolated series of works, in which there are some startling and moving images. The cosmopolitan objective of the series - of allowing contradictory, perhaps even competitive narratives of history and national identity - to sit side by side is perfectly in accord with the method of its execution and even the setting of its exhibition.

Boland, R. 1999. 'Hillen’s Hinde-sight' in The Irish Times.
Evans, D. 1993. Some Contexts for the Work of Sean Hillen.
Farrell, J. 1996. The Photomontages of Sean Hillen.
Greenberg, C. 1939. Avant-garde and Kitsch.
Hillen, S. 1997. The Great Cliffs of Collage Green, Dublin, IRELANTIS.
Hillen, S. 2005. The New Road, Finglas, IRELANTIS.
Hillen, S. 1995. The Oracle at O’Connell Street, Dublin, IRELANTIS.
Hillen, S. 1997. Sun, Sand and Cement in Temple Bar, Dublin, IRELANTIS.
Moroney, M. 2004. Sean Hillen.
O’Toole, F. 1999. Introduction to ‘Irelantis’.
Palmer, D. Cut and Paste: Sean Hillen.
Wikipedia. 2010. Sean Hillen.