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SOME CONTEXTS FOR THE WORK OF SEÁN HILLEN

David Evans 1993

Seán Hillen works with photomontage, a deceptively modest medium.
Popular with primary school teachers as a cheap and easy craft activity, it has also proved itself capable of registering some of the major cultural and political crises of the twentieth century.

In 1931 Raoul Hausmann described photomontage as 'static film'.
It's the shortest definition and the most suggestive -both films and photomontage involve the planned editing of photographs, and both had a golden age in the twenties.
Indeed the popularity of photomontage at this time was connected with its proximity to what was viewed as the one truly modem art form, cinema.

The Engineer

Montage is a German word meaning the fitting of parts by an engineer.
Describing oneself as a photomontage artist, therefore, was a calculated provocation in which the traditional distinction between aesthetic and industrial activities was collapsed. Such boundary crossing was not an isolated phenomenon, but part of a more general identification by artist with the engineer as modem liberator.
The United States was often presented as the rôle model and photomontage, with its industrial connotations, was seen as the appropriate medium for representing American inspired, technological utopias. Significantly, 'Americanism' was strongest in those areas most convulsed by World War 1 -Central and Eastern Europe, and it was precisely here that photomontage flourished in the twenties.


Photomontage has survived longer than the urban, industrial vision with which it was originally associated. Today, dystopic images of cities and technology out of control are more the norm. Seán Hillen shows cities at war. References to 'new towns' are ironic. And the emancipatory images of racing cars and aeroplanes, beloved by montage artists of the twenties, have been replaced by the jeeps and helicopters of the British Army, key factors in the military subjugation of Northern Ireland.

The Carnival Revelers

Carnival provides a second model for photomontage. From this perspective, the montage artist appears as reveller rather than engineer, using the classic repertoire of carnival -masking, hybridisation, metamorphosis, hierarchy inversion- to imaginatively turn the world upside down.
The satirical potential of photomontage was most thoroughly explored by John Heartfield, particularly in his anti-Nazi magazine images of the thirties. His recent retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, offered a rare chance to see the range of his work, and to distinguish the historically specific and the still useful.

The exhibition showed how Heartfield's satires were firmly anchored within a pro-Soviet world view. Ultimately, the single theme of his anti-Nazi work was a contrast between the darkness of Hitler and the light of Stalin.

One unusual feature of the show was the inclusion of surviving preparatory artwork. This revealed, more clearly than the end product on the magazine page, the elaborate ways in which Heartfield and his assistants painted, sprayed and retouched the combined photographs. The result was a crafted image that seemed worlds away from the anti-painting, machine aesthetic that formed so much of photomontage in the twenties.

Seán Hillen has no interest in Heartfield's Communist politics or his updated photographic pictorialism. He prefers a non-art look, where the joins are visible and the clash of discordant source material is obvious. Overall, the aim is to avoid a display of craft skills which might interfere with any political message. But what Hillen shares with Heartfield is an appreciation of the corrosive power of laughter.


The Scavenger

A third influential metaphor presents the photomontage artist as scavenger, rummaging through the ruins of modernity for usable rubbish. This image has a long history, beginning with Baudelaire's allegory of the modern artist as rag picker. However it seems to become especially pertinent in the 1980's with the widespread perception that modem history, including modem art, had reached a terminus. With everyone at the end station, then the only remaining work for the artist was as re-cycler. Once again photomontage seemed emblematic, but for now registering the end rather than beginning of the modem age.

Seán Hillen is a scavenger in the weak sense. He obviously re-cycles found imagery -press photographs, tourist postcards and Catholic iconography are three favourites. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he continues to believe that such materials can be mobilised to make political comment. He rejects all versions of 'Endism'.

One influential theory of the end of history stresses the global triumph of capitalism, with liberal democracy as its most comfortable political form. The two great challenges, Fascism and Communism, have both failed. Conflicts between nation states will still continue, but within a framework of shared values that encourages compromise. Nationalism and religious fundamentalism will also continue, but only in archaic backwaters that can be discounted.

Suddenly, care of Fukayama, there is a novel explanation for war in Northern Ireland -the combatants just don't realise that history is over. Consequently, traditional Irish pageantry is confused with real life, and nationalist and religious costumes are donned for an ideological conflict that has no place in the supranatural EEC to which governments of both Dublin and London adhere.

What connects this view with more familiar arguments, is the reduction of the role of the British state to that of referee between warring Irish factions. An outraged rejection of such positions is what animates the art of Seán Hillen. By bringing the war zone to London, or taking London to the war zone, he is insisting that Britain, not Ireland, constitutes the problem.



David Evans' most recent book was: "John Heartfield: AIZ/VI 1930-38"
(New York, 1992)



© David Evans, Seán Hillen, Irish Gallery of Photography 1993


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