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"Getting Along in LondoNewry"

Introductory text by Mic Moroney for the newly published catalogue:
Sean Hillen: Photomontages 1983-1993


It's exactly a decade since the paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland brought an uneasy end to the Troubles. But there was something extraordinary about the suddenness with which it became possible to talk about what had been happening for the previous 25 years. Before that, in Northern Ireland, if you weren't "involved", you didn't talk about the Troubles. It was all too momentous, too insoluble, too downright dangerous.
The writer Bernard MacLaverty memorably referred to it as "the elephant in the sitting room" - this huge, unmentionable, stinking mess stuck right in the middle of everyone's lives. Indeed, apart from some notable exceptions, many artists were silent on the subject.
I mean, what could you say that was in any way new?


But when I first saw Hillen's paper collages on the Troubles - in 1992, shortly after he arrived in Dublin after years of living in London - they were live, fiercely original and carried an outrageous comic punch. And they still do; although now, they're like a strangely enchanted memorial. For years, Hillen had been taking his own stark black and white photographs of the insane militarisation and chaos in Northern Ireland - and splicing it into an outlandish dreamworld of Romantic and apocalyptic skies; picture-postcard views of London and sacred Irish landscapes.

These tiny images - created with a scalpel under a binocular microscope - were acts of divinatory play, with many elements stolen from children's Ladybird books and pulp adventure comics. And despite the occasional, deliberately ragged join or colliding perspectives, one's eye still joyfully accomodates their fantasy - and if one takes it further, their interrogations of notions of colonialism and power; of civilisation and savagery, of Cowboys and Indians - as Hillen morally short-circuits the sinister balaclavas of Irish "terrorists" (link) with the gasmask horror-snouts of SAS elite troops in "The Virgin of Clohogue" [1993] or "Jesus Appears in Newry" [1992, link ).

Although the pictures were dismissed - wrongly and dangerously at the time - by one reactionary critic as "a hymn to Republicanism", they contain the sharp tang of authenticity, not propaganda. Some achieve a colossal, cautionary power. In "Four Ideas for a New Town. #7" (1987, link ), Hillen has the British Army mount a cordon in the flowerbeds in front of the Royal Festival Hall in London, while the sky is a bloody inferno. Others are elegaic: the flayed, classically poised anatomical figure in "Meeting the Dead #2" (1987, link ) appears in a state of dissected grace, hovering before burnt-out riot wreckage and a great alpine mountainscape.

Despite Hillen's daft, leprechaunish use of Catholic kitch, his eye is genuinely open to the magical, the miraculous, to the transcendant beauty of an Eden or Elysium. As Seamus Heaney said, in his opening speech for the 'IRELANTIS' exhibition, the pictures express "an ache for some kind of 'wholeness', in a world where the comfort of wholeness, and simple wholeness itself, is denied..."

Hillen was eight when the Troubles erupted in 1968-9. He grew up in a working-class Catholic estate in Newry, a town which itself was predominantly Catholic. Yet even here, working class Catholics were a marginalised underclass - a situation which was only intensified by the conflict. They were policed by a predominantly Protestant armed RUC force and a Protestant UDR militia, while under constant surveillance by British Army helicopters and observation posts. Meanwhile, from their own midst sprang the Provisional IRA who, although commanding community support, imposed terror and social control. As Hillen puts it, "We were the meat in the sandwich."


As a teenager, Hillen was friendly with a lad who later blew himself up assembling a bomb. He remembers another incident when a 12-year-old boy lost the top of his head to a British paratrooper's high-velocity bullet.. After such incidents, riots were routine, with the roads into housing estates regularly barricaded by burnt out cars, while nightly gun battles flared between the IRA and the Army. At the age of 15, Hillen himself was arrested for throwing stones at soldiers, which taught him a frightening lesson.
He eventually left to study art in London only an hour's flight away - gaving him a newly surreal perspective on his native town. In Hillen's punning scheme, this dualism became LondoNewry, in an ironic sideswipe at the disputed city name of Derry (as it is officially known by the Catholic-dominated Derry City Council), while Protestants continue to address it by its colonial title, Londonderry.

Returning to Newry, Belfast and Derry, Hillen photographed Republican funerals, riots, Orange marches, Corpus Christi processions and the annual Catholic mass held up the side of the Mourne Mountains. This last is a florid legacy - or a symbolic reminder - of the 18th century Penal Laws which disenfranchised Irish Catholics. In Hillen's collage on the 'Mass Rock', "Londonewry, A Mythical Town, #2" (1983, link ), the priest and his congregation seem mystically oblivious to the combat helicopter thundering over their heads, while the chimneys of London's Chelsea Mills dominate the horizon.

Elsewhere, Hillen spliced Protestant Orange marches into collages like
"Londonewry, A Mythical Town, #1" (1983): actually quite a tender image of two Orange lads lying side-by-side in a park and gazing up into an open sky of limitless possibility. Another picture; "Newry Gagarin, #6 "1992, ( link), from a 12th of July Orange march in Belfast, shows two feisty lassies leading a roaring crowd of young Protestants on their triumphal march, while Hillen's alter-ego in Londonewry, Newry Gagarin, goes up like a champagne cork at the sight of their carnivorous, sexualised abandon .


Newry Gagarin, of course, is a pun on Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who landed in a Russian field an hour before Hillen was born in 1961. Occupying Gagarin's space-suit allows Hillen a Martian's-eye view of his own spaced wonderland. In "Newry Gagarin, #7" (1992, link ), he seems to be scratching his head at the H-Block graffitti after crashlanding in Derry's Bogside; blinded by the Nightsun glare of a helicopter searchlight. Elsewhere ( link), he floats like thistledown over the border installations into the Republic of (Southern) Ireland in his ovum-like capsule. In "Gagarin's Room" (1985, link ), his window looks out at a Newry schoolboy being brutally arrested (Hillen later learned the boy's brother was being held in connection with an IRA mortar-bombing of the RUC station which killed nine officers).

Hillen also used imagery he photographed at the historic Republican funeral of 23-year-old Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) hunger striker Patsy O'Hara in 1981 - one of ten Republican prisoners who galvanised global media attention by starving themselves to death in a bid for political status. It was one of the biggest funerals Derry ever saw - as big as that of the 14 civil rights marchers shot dead by British paratroopers in 1972 - with O'Hara's coffin flanked by 34 uniformed male and female INLA volunteers.
A phalanx of these, in their balaclavas and berets, appear in Hillen's provocative "Trouble in Paradise..." (1987, link ); standing to attention by a parade ground where the Queen's own ceremonial Horseguards are trooping the Colour.
Remarkably enough, this piece is now, with others, in the Permanent Collection of the Imperial War Museum in London.

After O'Hara's funeral, rioting flared for hours in the Catholic ghetto of the Bogside. Hillen photographed the teenage stone-throwers - young, would-be alpha males who remind one sharply of the boys of today's Palestinian refugee camps - and planted them in "Four Ideas for a New Town, #1" (1982, link ). One wee ghoulie stares suspiciously at Hillen's camera from behind a Glasgow Celtic scarf, while another balaclava-head primes a couple of Molotov milkbottles. Just beyond them, a very vulnerable-looking redcoat staggers off on foot towards London and home.


Such a collision of realities also appears in "Four Ideas for a New Town, #5" (1985, link ) in which trim-suited High Street London shoppers stroll past mangled, burnt-out cars; and RUC Landrovers picking their way through broken glass and masonry - the aftermath of a far-flung colonial riot transplanted right to the heart of Empire.

Just as with collage artist, John Heartfield, photomontage provided Hillen with the perfect tool to subvert images of power, but also to somehow represent - in surreally inverted form - the conflicting yet interpenetrating realities in Northern Ireland. Topsy-turvy as Hillen's Londonnewry may seem, it is also a strangely truthful version of the place, where even now, for example, the urban street furniture is that of an English town, while the landscapes are unmistakably Irish.
Yet in Hillenland, each is both and neither, depending on your personal baggage - or indeed momentary perspective. Indeed, Hillen often quotes Oscar Wilde: "The pure and simple truth is never pure and rarely simple"

As with much of the native humour of Northern Ireland, Hillen's flight into wild absurdism was a necessary psychic protection from the serious levels of violence, intimidation and paranoia down the years. Meanwhile, some of the best pictures are full of comic warmth, like "Natives in a Mystic State.." (1988, link ), an affectionate portrait of Hillen's parents walking the "Fairy Glen" near Rostrevor, while a group of traditional "Mummers" work mischief and mumbo-jumbo behind them, dressed like wicker men.
With the Palace of Westminster basking at the foot of California's sacred Mount Shasta in the background, it's a beautiful, daft image of a golden moment - like trying to capture the essence of a childhood that once might have been.


© Irish Gallery of Photography / Mic Moroney 2004.

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