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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.

Ironically perhaps, Hillen’s 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 Warhol’s representation of 20th century America, Hillen’s 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 O’Connell 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 that’s already invented, that already doesn’t exist, that in fact is of the imagination and of the mind.”*
Hillen’s 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 Warhol’s “dream America”.

“They’re this thing that you’ve never seen before, but at the same time they’re extremely familiar. It feels like a world that you know but you’ve never been to; they’ve 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, Hillen’s 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 of art.
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 Hillen’s 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 dimensions...

© Eimer McKeith / Stone Gallery 2005

*In conversation with the artist.





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