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Translation of Review feature from Art Actuel Magazine No. 35, November-December 2004 © ART ACTUEL / HUGO VAN OFFEL 2004.


Hugo van Offel

In the chaotic world which could be that of the North of Ireland, Seán Hillen creates a photomontage adventure, in an dreamlike universe.
Images that shock.

Born in the North of Ireland in 1961, Sean Hillen was eight years of age when the civil war broke out. This trial marked him forever. After studying art in London, he began work relating to Newry, his native town, then Dublin and Belfast. Very quickly, the conflict in the north of Ireland, and especially the general indifference that accompanied it, pushed him to find a new mode of expression.

If he appreciated the power of photojournalism, Sean Hillen looked for a way to seduce the crowds in order to better pass his message. As with the dramatic dimension of photojournalism he preferred a testimony based on a more baroque aesthetic. In photomontage he was to find his ideal tool.

The very first series "Newry Gagarin" relating to a famous Russian astronaut, illustrate perfectly the points that mark out the different stages of his career: dreamlike universe, a comic dimension at the service of his political engagement. The following series, "Four Ideas for a New Town..","LondoNewry..", and "The Professionals.." were received with enthusiasm by the public, despite the fact that some of them were overtly censored more than once in London.

Comic and subversive, the work of Sean Hillen provokes the viewer who, if they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by the aesthetic, will discover a coded message whose symbolism can be very virulent. Partly inspired by the landscapes of the English photographer John Hinde, Hillen began his photomontages while still in London: "I took tourist postcards, photos of the Queen, of Buckingham Palace and I superposed details of photographs of political conflict which reigned in the north of Ireland. I wanted to show the parallel realities of two different places". Sean Hillen trained and became more and more precise in his work of cutting out of images.

He began the series which would make him a celebrity in his own county: "Irelantis".
He elaborates: "I wanted to make work full of love instead of anxiety. I never succeed in exhibiting my work a lot in London because it was perhaps too political for the galleries and then the peace process came about. With "Irelantis" I wanted to do something different". The 28 works from this series whose underlying thread is composed with the work of John Hinde, are today almost all sold.
"I’ve been told that the piece "Sun, Sand and Cement in Temple Bar" can be found in Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister of Ireland’s office.

In the supernatural world of Irelantis shopping centres becomes running fields and meteorites fall from the sky, while Christ takes the appearance of the Statue of Liberty. A world of dreams and chaos, where the saturated colours remind us indirectly of the aesthetic of "Megalopolis" by Chayan Koï.

"My work is a sort of game relating to what is real and what is not. I make places that appear real, that exist only in dreams and nightmares. I don’t try to bang the spectator on the head with my vision of reality. I just suggest that there is another possible reading". Behind the apparently light talk hides a distress that the artist carries with him since his youth.
"My home town, Newry, was the exact opposite of idyllic" he admitted. "I remember that I dreamed that I would live somewhere else, where there would not be the war. At the age of ten, I already felt that the incredible level of surveillance by the army was negative. We lived from day to day under incredible pressure. The series "Irelantis" was definitely an antidote to that reality. I realised that the imagination is the key to survival. It can also allow you to transcend. My work says: here you are in a world that is magic. You just have to be capable of seeing it".

The work of Sean Hillen proposes a rereading of the tragic events perpetuated during the war years. Beyond the aesthetic, we can discover the work of an artist, made without the aid of computers, which mixes phomontage and documentary photography. A dialogue between the original document, raw witness to events, a personal vision which transcends reality. A transition from sensitive to intelligible.

Hugo van Offel


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