Born in 1961 in Newry, N.Ireland., Hillen lives and works in Dublin. He studied at Belfast College of Art, London College of Printing and the Slade School of Fine Art.
A ‘traditional’ collagist whose work has both popular and intellectual appeal, Hillen, regarded as one of the most significant Irish artists of his generation, and one of the most widely-published, is also probably the most censored in Ireland and Britain in the period.
He first gained notice in the U.K. for his early works based on his own photos from the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ era. The photos themselves were hidden for nearly 20 years except being used as source material for photomontages.
The resulting photomontages were widely published at the time and are now studied as examples of the medium and used in education on the subject of conflict.
One of several in the Permanent Collection of the Imperial War Museum was recently published as frontispiece to their definitive publication “Art from Contemporary Conflict”.
They have also featured in publications by the National Museums of Northern ireland, and on the new ACNI site: http://www.troublesarchive.com/index.php/artists/sean-hillen
In 1990 he won first prize regionally and second prize nationally in the UK Design Council ‘Year of Invention’ competition, with a design for a new kind of printing machine.
In the early 1990’s he moved to Dublin and began a new series titled ‘IRELANTIS’, which have come to be described as “the most vivid and emblematic expression of the dreams and anxieties of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland”- and have themselves become part of the cultural landscape, for instance featuring on the covers of over 30 books, magazines and journals, and themselves the subject of academic study.
His collage series ‘Searching for Evidence..’ from 2007 and “WHAT’S WRONG? with The Consolations of Genius” in 2011 refer to issues of ‘cognitive dissonance’ in the wake of the 9/11 events, and were the subject of a panel discussion at a major Sociology conference in 2015.
In 2011 the National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive acquired as a separate Permanent collection his complete archive of photos from the ‘Troubles’ era, and exhibited them drawing 17,000 visitors in 2012, and in 2013 they were published as ‘Melancholy Witness’ by The History Press in Ireland and republished in 2014 in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Press.
The book was one of only two Irish books featured in ‘Publisher’s Weekly’ annual US review, and is now widely distributed, for instance on the ‘Walmart’ website.
He was featured with a full biography in the definitive Royal Irish Academy’s “art & Architecture of Ireland” published in 2013; his work is ‘Figure 2.’in the recent history “Photography & Ireland” and also the cover of “Art in Ireland Since 1910”, and in Autumn 2015 Irish Arts Review.
He has also executed commissions and collaborations including video for Sony Music/Super Furry Animals; stage design, advertisements, title graphics and permanent sculptures for Citi Group and Dublin City Council.
He won the international design competition, with landscape architect Desmond Fitzgerald, for the Omagh Bomb Memorial unveiled in August 2008.
His work is in many private and public collections including the Irish State Collection, Permanent Collection of the Imperial War Museum (works on permanent exhibition), National Library of Ireland, National Museums Northern Ireland, Wolverhampton Museum, MoMA, Allied Irish Bank, the European Central Bank, The Irish Central Bank, Citigroup SA, Aspen Re. (through the Contemporary Art Society), the BBC and Microsoft Ltd.
He has won several awards and prizes including a major bursary from the Irish Arts Council in 2015. Also in 2015 Erik Kessels designed the book ‘The Wonderful World of Seán Hillen” to be published 2016. In 2017 the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast will host ‘100 WORKS’ the first major Seán Hillen retrospective, a 35-year survey show.
“Most all of my works have been ‘traditional’ scalpel-and-glue photomontages. The oldest ones were made between 1983 and ’93, were always based on one of my own documentary photographsmade in Northern Ireland, and were somehow related to and to an extent engaged in, the northern conflict.
I was born and grew up in Newry, a small but sometimes busy town just on the northern side of the Irish Border. Situated just at the head of the picturesque lough in the ‘Gt. Pyramids’ picture, it has experienced more than enough of the ‘troubles’.
In 1982 I went to study and live in London, irregularly travelling backwards and forwards and taking the photographs for the works. I studied at the London College of Printing, a ‘media’ school, and then at the Slade School of Fine Art.
In 1993 I moved to Dublin. A second body of works, of ‘Irelantis’, were made between 1994 and ’97, and were partly in response to my desire to get away from the ‘war’, and make more overtly healing works, as I used to say; pictures full of Love instead of Anxiety.
They are also different in using purely ‘found’ material, that is postcards, magazine pictures etc., rather than my own prints from my own photographs which I had previously used.
I do enjoy working in different media if I get a chance, so apart from collage, I have made sculptural works on different scales including monumental public sculpture, (while at the Slade even made some video / performance work). I take occasional commissions, which have included stage design and graphic design and advertisements. I have made music video for Sony and designed TV title graphics for the BBC.
I also enjoy solving technical problems and have designed and built special props and effects for theatre companies.
I also do an increasing amount of lecturing and teaching in art schools and to a variety of groups.
About the photomontage work:
In the case of the earlier work, I suppose I was very lucky, in that I had the motivation to make the montages, the material in the photographs I’d been taking, and that the medium lends itself perfectly to dialectic and political satire, which is what they are, to some extent. I originally was taking straight photographs for exhibition as a fine-art practice, and then began sort of ’embroidering’ them with found bits and pieces, but in the end I was taking the photos specifically for use in montages.
It should be mentioned that all photography of the ‘Security Forces’ was and is technically illegal, and actively discouraged, I was a few times told where to go or what they’d do, and I usually tried to pretend I was press, or ‘just’ an innocent art student…
Though the work was actively censored from exhibitions on a number of occasions, the public there really liked it and ‘got’ it, and it gained quite high exposure for a while, if not the real attention I sort of hoped for.
It has been published in photographic magazines appearing on the covers of ‘Creative Camera’ and of the ‘Royal Photographic Journal’ for instance.
Notably in the 1980’s and since the UK’s Imperial War Museum purchased several for their Permanent Collection (and now, in 2012, they are on semi-permanent exhibition and in the collections of a number of museums).
At the same time though I had little interest in making or for that matter experiencing polemic or didactic art, which comes from a point of ‘knowing better’ than the viewer and telling one how it is. I really wanted, while conveying my ideas and impressions, to make the whole thing more open-handed, and that’s partly why I like the rough collage construction, in that you clearly see the way the thing is made, and that’s part of it .
I believe they’re to some extent ‘thought experiments’, and adventures, trying out my ideas on myself and you rather than hitting you over the head with them. They’re definitely all meant to provoke thought, and usually to make you laugh.
There’s also an element in all the work of wanting to make something that would stop you in your tracks, something you’ve never seen before, again that’s something I enjoy myself.
And of course they’re jokes about how reality is constructed, and about the possibility or likelihood that we don’t agree on it, how multiple interpretations of reality don’t necessarily negate each other.
Work that I personally like and admire would often be really serious comedy, from Jonathon Swift to Flann O’Brien to Kevin McAleer, the Dadaists and John Heartfield to the philosopher Robert Anton Wilson.
I do believe there’s some truth in the idea that a good joke always contains some kernel of truth, although I remember some quote from Oscar Wilde along the lines of that whatever statement one can say that is the truth, then its opposite is probably also true.
There’s a marvellous quote from Walter Benjamin that “convulsion of the diaphragm usually provides better opportunities for thought than convulsions of the soul”
I also like really good religious art which carries conviction, from El Greco to Stanley Spencer to Pasolini to the Irish painter Patrick Pye.
I’m reminded also of Duchamp’s remark that he made art primarily to amuse himself, and then trusted to posterity, and can identify with that.
Of course I was coming from a ‘fine art’ background, and certainly want(ed) them to be seen and taken in that context, if only because all I really wanted in the end was to do really good art, art that would ‘give you something’, (which is what I like as a punter myself,) and for people to see it, and that was where it took me.
In many of the early works there’s often a dynamic of the business of the onlooker being somehow insulated by the frame, windows etc. but also implicated or otherwise inadvertantly involved.
This is connected to the device I became aware of later (though I must obviously been doing it instinctively), that I used a quite wide lens for nearly all the photos. It meant that I had to get very close to, if not right into whatever I was photographing, and also produced a perspective effect in the pictures which kind of sucks you into the space.
It seems to work no less when mixed with other perspectives, and there’s a similar thing in that I often telescoped several high and vertiginous viewpoints (though or perhaps because I don’t like heights myself) into a scene, producing what I’ve called ‘roller-coaster’ perspectives.
The Irelantis pictures began I think partly as a joke about whether Ireland was ‘civilised’, a sort of development from the ‘noble / savage’ jokes.
I was originally toying with calling them ‘Ancient Monuments In Ireland’, and moving monuments from around the world into Irish landscapes. Then I hit on the Irelantis word, which while it has a bit of anxiety about it, also is a licence for delightful imaginings.
They’re also I suppose about the place of any place in the World, and about the idea that Irishness was perhaps a state of mind- I also remember being in my kitchen in London and hearing on the radio the song called “If We Only Had Old Ireland Over Here”, with a line that went “…if only Sydney Harbour opened onto Galway Bay..”
There’s often some disaster or catastrophe in progress, but also an odd calmness while people go about their normal business or look on curiously.
They also, I hope, have a far more ‘visionary’ and hopeful aspect; a sense of immanence, of the magical and spritual aspects of reality leaking out into public spectacle.
I hope you enjoy seeing them.