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Catalogue text by Eimer McKeith for Sean Hillen's 'new'
'IRELANTIS' collages, 2005
Sean Hillen once
described his work as "part Heartfield, part Warhol".
In the original Irelantis collages, created between 1994 and 1998, Hillen
mined popular culture for images of an idea of Ireland: a version of
Irishness as expressed in the heightened vision of a John Hinde postcard.
Hillens images have since become themselves a part of popular
culture: they have been used for the cover of a Super Furry Animals
single, as promotional material for a film festival in France and as
cover illustrations on several books. And like Warhols representation
of 20th century America, Hillens images seem, somehow, to have
captured the essence of an era: the optimism and anxiety of Ireland
of the 90s.
It is interesting,
then, that Hillen has now returned once more to the series, to create
a new vision for a new century. While the images are without doubt a
continuation of the earlier Irelantis images, they are also a development.
There are subtle changes in tone: there are no natural disasters or
images of destruction, but an underlying sense of precariousness prevails.
People run along a beach, perilously perched at the edge of a cliff,
or a bridge straddles the edge of a roaring waterfall, or the viewer
looks down at a vertiginous angle upon OConnell Street.
In his new images, too, there is a sense of the encroachment of leisure
activities, tourism and development on natural surroundings, and there
is a distinct clash of the natural and the manmade, the urban and the
rural. One telling image splices together a monorail, a submarine, a
pool, palm trees and Wexford town. The monorail and the submarine, however,
are not real as such but are actually from Disneyland: the
ultimate expression of the postmodern hyperreal.
As Hillen says of his images: They constitute a world thats
already invented, that already doesnt exist, that in fact is of
the imagination and of the mind.*
Hillens world is an upside-down, witty wonderland, where things
are not what they seem, where different levels of reality jostle with
each other, vying for attention. The images, culled from picture postcards
and stuck together in unexpected combinations, create a spiralling vortex
of conflicting realities that undermine and question the validity of
any one expression of so-called truth. He manages to create something
that is recognisable but has an element of estrangement, like Warhols
Theyre this thing that youve never seen before, but
at the same time theyre extremely familiar. It feels like a world
that you know but youve never been to; theyve got that vividness
of a dream, says Hillen. Photography, traditionally thought to
be a truthful means of representation, is thus questioned in the work
of Hillen to the extent that the medium itself is playfully undermined.
While using simple, found photographs like Warhol, Hillens collages
have a distinctly crafted element to them. In an era of digital photography
and Photoshop, Hillen continues making hand-made collages; thus the
mass-produced postcards become transformed into singular, one-off works
The delicacy with which he has sliced the images and fitted them together,
layer upon layer, has the touch of a surgeon with his scalpel or of
a biologist playing God with his experiments under a microscope. The
desk in Hillens studio is scattered with hundreds of postcards,
and there is an arbitrary, chaotic dimension to his work: there is the
thrill of the happy accident when contrasting images fit together to
create, as if by chance, many layers of meaning and countless witty
© Eimer McKeith
/ Stone Gallery 2005
*In conversation with the artist.