By Mic Moroney for PhotoIreland 2010
It is something of a joy to see here, under the same roof, two of the finest exemplars of contemporary photomontage. Peter Kennard, whom Hillen knew slightly from the 1980s in London, is a generation older, but influenced Hillen’s imagination early on, not least with his iconic plundering of Constable, in Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980), in protest against government plans to site nuclear missiles in the English countryside. (Now working with Cat Picton Phillipps in protesting the Iraq war, as here, Kennard still forges instant popular icons, such as his brutally direct collage of Tony Blair snapping himself and his Peter Pan grin against the inferno of the Iraqi oil fields).
Photomontage is as old as photography itself, but stems largely from the Dada movement, with its anti-art revulsion at the jingoistic colonial, imperial and nationalist cultures which led to the squalid outbreak of ‘the Great War’ in 1914. Hillen took his cue from innovators like George Grosz and the visionary John Heartfield, but was also influenced by Pop artists like Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, even Claes Oldenberg; while being tutored at the London College of Printing by Victor Burgin and Ken McMullen; and later the radical performance artist Stuart Brisley, who, as a professor, enured that Hillen was admitted to the Slade. While adept at Photoshop, Hillen prefers to tinker gleefully with paper collage using scalpels under binocular microscopes, in a workshop like an Aladdin’s cave of eviscerated gadgets and electronic toys. Up one end, he stockpiles his tiny postcard landscape cut-outs, like the doll’s house stage-scenery of those miniature Baroque paper-box theatres.
Photomontage lends itself to the fantastical and allegorical as much as the agit-prop. In Hillen’s hands, collage is an oddly divinatory art, mixing and matching miniature worlds in a playful, almost prophetic elastication of reality; his imagery purloined mostly from postcards, and whatever spectacular source fascinates his eye and his latest, charmed philosophy. Always disarmingly comic, their sheer originality is undeniable; their beautiful, instinctively Romantic compositions employing unlikely collisions and whirling perpectives to deliver up gripping, terrific little spectacles.
Hailing from the predominantly Catholic-nationalist border town of Newry, Hillen was eight when the troubles erupted in 1969. As a teenager, he began photographing, in black and white, the peculiar tribal rituals of Northern Ireland: the nightly riots and arrests; Loyal Order parades; the vast republican funeral of hunger striker Patsy O’Hara in Derry in 1981; even the atavistic, annual Catholic “Mass rock” concelebration up the vertiginous slopes of the Mourne Mountains. These are now recognised as valuable documentary photos in their own right.
But travelling between London and home, only an hour’s flight away, Hillen found his métier when he began splicing these pictures into garish postcard views of London’s sunlit metropole - often transplanting messy scenes of the colonial conflict right into the heart of Empire.
It was an absurdist approach, with a left-field humour which I often associate with his compatriots, comedian Kevin McAleer or painter Dermot Seymour — taking an already bad joke, and pushing it over the brink. In Hillen’s case, the result was often both apocalyptic and transcendent: a carnivalesque upending of reality which was irrepressibly comic — and shockingly impudent.
Many early collages came under his Londonewry rubric,
punning on the colonial palimpsest of Londonderry, the Plantation
title given to the rebuilt old town of Derry (historically, the last
purpose-built, fully walled city in Western Europe). If his earliest
collages seem rudimentary in the light of his later work, they
nonetheless retain a cautionary power.
In "Four Ideas for a New Town # 1" (1982), he uses his photographs of teenage stone- throwers after O’Hara’s funeral in the riots that flared for hours in the Bogside — young, would-be alpha males who remind one sharply of the boys of today’s Palestinian refugee camps. One wee ghoulie stares suspiciously at Hillen’s camera from behind a Glasgow Celtic scarf, while another balaclava-head primes a couple of Molotov milk bottles. Just beyond them, a very vulnerable-looking redcoat staggers off on foot towards home, on the rocky road to London.
Elsewhere, he riffs on the profoundly ambivalent popular junk-culture that flooded the telly with James Bond reruns and English elite CI5 TV heroes like The Professionals — all potentially lethal enemies from a nationalist perspective. One howler is "Pat Jennings Appears In Bolton, Security Forces Investigate..." (1990) — the stout thighs and lush sideburns of the sainted, green-jerseyed, Newry-born goalkeeper for Northern Ireland shimmering into view as a colossal, leprechaunish exhibit in a shopping mall art show, while detective Doyle has the joint covered with his high-velocity rifle. There is less to laugh about in the images of malignant, insectoid SAS commandoes with their beads drawn on your forehead, as in "Jesus Appears in Newry" (1992); or the gas masked, Messianic horror-snout of "The Virgin of Clohogue" (1992).
One elegant collage, widely reproduced at the time, is "The Goddess Appears in Newry, Easter 1993", (1993), with its heavily armed teenage English soldier (sporting a bravely attempted moustache) crouched in an entranceway, and overloomed by the great cruciform halo of the sky-borne Virgin Mary. Behind him, some burly RUC hoofers and their armoured vehicle seem mired in Irish gorse — as if lost in a pagan landscape of apparitions and incomprehensible folk religion, utterly impervious to any reason
It was all an angrily honest response to the psychic scars wrought by that conflict, and it’s important from this distance to realise these were live commentaries, as the tally of murder and atrocity mounted daily. In the chill atmosphere of the Thatcher years, one critic even described them as “a hymn to Republicanism” which, as Hillen says, “was enough to get me shot at the time”. Naturally, in England, there was close filtering of any material on the ‘Irish Troubles’. When Hillen did manage to exhibit in London, his collages aroused a lot of interest, and indeed mirth - although there was much institutional discomfiture, with many curators seemingly petrified to deal with them, and on at least one occasion, they were humiliatingly “deselected” from a show.
As a most remarkable exception, in 1988, Angela Weight, longtime Keeper of Art at the Imperial War Museum, bought three, including the provocative Trouble in Paradise (1987), which featured the Queen’s own Horse Guards Trooping the Colour, visually upstaged by a phalanx of INLA Volunteers, men and women, in their Sunday- best uniforms, berets perched atop their balaclavas. Needless to say, the War Museum Trustees never specifically green-lighted these purchases, and during Weight’s years there, they were only exhibited twice, and very quietly at that - in c1990, and then, after the sting had gone out of the Troubles, in a group show in 2004 suggestively titled 'Open Secret'
(In a final flourish of vindication, all three are now on semi-permanent display in the Museum’s latest, northern branch, in the rather different cultural atmosphere of Manchester, with its deeply ingrained history of migrant Irish folk).
But if somewhat radioactive at the time, Hillen’s pictures imbued a daftly fond and homey sense to his native place, like "Londonewry, A Mythical Town # 1" (1983), with its two young Orange boys lying flat out in the field, with the imperially looted Cleopatra’s Needle in the background; "Londonewry.. # 14" (1987), with the young catholic lads carrying toddlers on their backs looking down on London town; or for me, the great chuckler of "Londonewry.. # 8" (1987), with the priest setting up his makeshift Corpus Christi altar outside Dunnes Stores in Newry, as if to splash a dollop of holy water on the ceremonial Horse Guards as they canter decorously past.
Warmest of all is "Natives in a Mystic State, # 1" (1985), Hillen’s spectacularly affectionate portrait of his late parents walking the ‘Fairy Glen’ near Rostrevor, while a bunch of traditional ‘Mummers’ work mischief and mumbo-jumbo behind them. With the Palace of Westminster basking at the foot of California’s sacred Mount Shasta in the background, it’s a beautiful image of a golden moment — as if trying to capture the essence of a childhood that once might have been.
In 1992, Hillen left London for the more forgiving environment of Dublin, partly as a last resort. Here he consciously left behind the problematic politics in his work, and took flight into the rampant whimsy of a dreamlandish paradisical isle he dubbed IRELANTIS — Ireland as the long-flooded emerald isle of Atlantis, a Hy-Brasil made hyperreal through collage. This civilisation forever teetered on the verge of annihilation — a threat which seemed lost on its cast of tiny entranced figurines, sun-tranquillised visitors in their own overlit tourist idyll.
Much of the Irish imagery was based on Hillen’s purloining, to hilarious effect, of John Hinde’s mesmerising colour-saturated postcards of a sunlit 1960s Ireland, marooned in perpetual summer. But in Hillenland, impossible wonders were everywhere: IRELANTIS’ legendary Knowths and Newgranges sweltering alongside Delphic Oracles and Apollonic Temples in Mediterranean heat. The skies terminated in gigantic earthrises; or swooped off into awesome star-filled intergalactic perspectives — as if aching to harness the fundamental powers of the Cosmos. On one level, it was a catastrophic view, a globally-warmed future Ireland teetering on the verge of cataclysm: its tiny denizens lolling past fiery volcanoes, insensible to the geological or cosmic eschatology — with Vesuvius sparkling over the ruins of Grafton street, a glacier grinding down Henry Street; or the Taj Mahal of Carlingford framing a spectacular meltdown at the THORP plant in Sellafield.
On another level, they were madly satiric images (the entrance to Trinity College giving onto a vertiginous cliff- drop): crafted with a wild-eyed, impish humour, and a set of zesty, fruit-pastille colour schemes which hotwired the visual centres at the back of your brain. Meanwhile, a cod-Immanence infused everything, rendering it largely impervious to any literal interpretation. Despite being subversive as ever, Hillen’s IRELANTIS pictures quickly achieved real psychic purchase in Dublin, and indeed elsewhere. Art colleges teemed with student theses, while the pictures were widely reproduced in newspapers, magazines, TV. They even graced the Taoiseach’s office, however it refracted Bertie Ahern’s view of his golden realm — and even surrounded the entrance to the EU presidency office, when Bertie went to Brussels in 2004.
Hillen earned another seemingly unlikely champion in the ‘revisionist’ Irish historian, Roy Foster (who has dubbed Hillen “a national treasure”, and has begun collecting his work) since Hillen’s "The Great Pyramids of Carlingford Lough" (1994), spangled the cover of Foster’s book, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it Up in Ireland (2001). Hillen’s collages also exercise the wits of other members of the Irish Studies brigade, blossoming across the flyleaves of countless media and cultural studies volumes — Luke Gibbons’ Tranformations in Irish Culture (1996) among many other deconstructions of what it means to be Irish today. Hillen is also often invited to give his tuppence-worth at symposia on everything from conflict culture to art-and-science collaborations; and was recently airlifted to Spain to share his wisdom with the 7th International Conference of the Utopian Studies Society.
At one stage, Hillen even considered branding IRELANTIS, as it was being constantly plagiarised by advertising agencies.
Instead, he ended up designing a series of posters for Bank of Ireland at Dublin airport, to direct tourists towards their ATM’s. With merry sacrilege, he montaged ATM’s onto archetypal beauty spots like the 'Blarney Stone', the side of a round tower and even the leg of a dolmen, which must surely have furrowed the brow of many’s a banker’s clerk.
But eventually the steam leaked out of IRELANTIS, around 2005. Perhaps it was ultimately an unsustainable fantasy. One very late piece may provide a clue, "The Launch Pad at O’Connell St, Dublin" (2005), with the prospect of an advanced civilisation finally jettisoning its earthly paradise once it had been all used up; overheated and over-consumed. 3 For Hillen, the defining disaster arrived with 9/11. The official 9/11 Commission Report of 2004, while mildly criticising federal agencies and two administrations for failing to heed intelligence, is now widely seen as very scant on answers. Why did the US Air Force not intercept any of the hijacked planes? More obviously, how on earth did the Twin Towers, two colossal buildings, pancake so perfectly into their own footprints in less than 12 seconds — as did, eight hours later, the nearby ‘Building 7’ of the World Trade Centre, even though it seemed to suffer no structural damage. A growing number of architects, engineers and physicists have admitted that they very quickly concluded these were controlled demolitions.
The internet is alive with videos scrutinising every frame of the footage, pointing out the explosive dust puffs from each floor as the building collapsed; eyewitness reports of hearing multiple explosions as the buildings were evacuated, the molten metal in the ruins which smouldered for months, and the fact that no modern high rise had ever heretofore or since collapsed from fire damage.
One group of physicists, led by the Dane Niels Harrit, reported the chemical signature of ‘nano-thermite’ in the Ground Zero debris — an experimental explosive only developed since the 1990s, which could have generated temperatures high enough to melt the buildings’ reinforced steel infrastructures.
Many have pointed to the gung-ho geostrategic right-wing Republican think tank, ‘Project for a New American Century’ (many of whose signatories, including Cheney, went on to form the Bush administration) which, in aiming to copper fasten American victory in the Cold War, recommended (in a 2000 document Rebuilding America’s Defenses) the desirability of “some catastrophic and catalyzing event — like a new Pearl Harbor”.
Many commentators on the Left, including Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Naomi Klein — while castigating the Bush administration’s immeasurable cynicism in using 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq and rollback countless domestic civil liberties (in the US Patriot Acts of 2001 and 2006) — have refused to even discuss the suspicions — almost too horrendous to contemplate — that on some level, 9/11 was sanctioned, tolerated or even orchestrated by elements close to the administration. If it is scary to even utter it, its implications make it border on the unthinkable.
But the unthinkable is precisely Hillen’s chosen territory (he cites the line from Alice Through the Looking Glass about the gift of being able to imagine six impossible things before breakfast). As a native of Northern Ireland, he is also skeptically acclimatised over the years to the fug of state disinformation; and is even sensitised to the idea of a state being involved in lethal action against its own civilians.
Indeed, there have been many paradigmatic shifts over the years in Northern Ireland in terms of what is mentionable — from the idea of British security forces colluding with paramilitaries, to the now widely accepted fact that they even ran murderous operations.
But what finally jolted Hillen to the 9/11 subject was the shock at learning in a newspaper of the death of a young woman, a London picture-researcher whom he had met, who was blown up on the upper floor of the bus on Tavistock Square on 7/7 in London 2005. This brought the new paradigm of “war of terror” home to him.
And then came the gaps and inconsistencies in the official account, and the refusal to set up an official inquiry…
These suspicions and anxieties now darken Hillen’s far more paranoid vision of the Emerald Isle — and it matches the general switch to a constant drumbeat of crisis and fear in the media, along with the global war on terror, which has been confidently projected by security analysts to last for at least the next 15 years. Meanwhile, we endure a constantly encroaching state surveillance and retention of our data, from full-body X-ray scanners at airports to our entire phone, Internet, financial and health records, while our movements are monitored and mapped by our mobile telephony and GPS navigation systems. We are constantly reminded how the global economic crisis will demand more painful sacrifices to come; and how growing human populations and dwindling energy and food reserves threaten a Malthusian meltdown any time soon.
Hillen began his latest series of collages in 2007 at the Cill Rialaig artists’ retreat in Kerry, when he was stationed up a bothairín that ended in a 150-foot drop into the Atlantic. Nearby were ruined cottages which looked as if their occupants had simply walked out the door a century ago, never to return. Meanwhile, the daily news from Iraq evoked their descendants fighting in that conflict, like the US 69th Infantry Regiment (nicknamed the ‘Fighting Irish’) who are forever ducking snipers and IED’s on the lethal road from Baghdad airport to the Green zone, known as ‘Route Irish’.
Where once in IRELANTIS, red-haired, freckle-faced children gathered meteorites at Knowth, now the peasants are "Collecting Evidence of Controlled Demolition in Connemara" (2007) in their donkey carts. The sky is indeed falling in on the dreamworld, the smoke plumes from the Twin Towers plainly visible across the sky.
Indeed, one Tower has fetched up on an insanely overdeveloped isle on "..The Upper Lake in Killarney" (2007), where it blazes and sputters its toxic payload into the misted Kerry hills. Again, the denizens of these tropicalised Irish landscapes wilfully ignore the menace. In "..Evidence of Controlled Demolition at Castle Green, Ballybunion" (2007), the daytripping couple gaze at the strand, oblivious to the conflagration erupting from the upper storeys of a nearby high-rise (where a Geraldine castle ruin actually stands).
Similarliwise, in one breathtakingly elegaic image, "Evidence of Controlled Demolition at The Rose Garden, Tralee, Co. Kerry" (2007), the tatterdemalion shell of a partly demolished residential building reveals its interior walls, hauntingly stained with the lives of its former inhabitants. Meanwhile, two young ladies gaze in a fugue of admiration at the rose beds, while the lava of ruination laps at their heels. Beyond the low-walled garden, an approaching tornado rattles the foundations of the horizon.
Another John Hinde-derived heartbreaker is the hilarious 'Searching for Evidence of Controlled Demolition at Fr. McDyer’s Folk Village, Glencolmcille, Co. Donegal" (2007) — this last a sanitised Clachán settlement dreamt up by the Glenties-born priest in 1967, to draw tourist dollars into the impoverished area. Here, earnest sightseers consult their guidebooks while inspecting a blankly inanimate jaunting car; while beyond the roped-down thatched cottages, a series of high-rise blocks careen and stagger over like ninepins.
Towers, it seems, are toppling all over Ireland, like men shot in the head: one keels over gracefully in Killiney Bay; another crumples like sweetpaper at "..Evidence at The Silver Strand, Co. Wicklow" (2007).
Elsewhere, Hillen tilts satire at our national cravenness before the new imperial power in “Raising the White Flag on Tramore Beach” (2007), with the popular resort recast as a sun-kissed Normandy. Squint into this tiny collage, and you will espy the invading US force that scarcely perturbs the two milk bottle pallid youngsters playing ball on the beach. Meanwhile, half-lost in their gossip, a little flotilla of three maiden aunts stroll flirtatiously
up past a squadron of GI’s. It’s more difficult to orient yourself temporally in “A Squadron of Bradleys Intercepts Natives Carrying Home Evidence of Controlled Demolition in Sackville Street, Dublin” (2007).
The sight of these American iight tanks shrieking and chundering across the grassy Georgian thoroughfare of Sackville Street must be a seismic experience for the Irish peasantry (here liberated from an English ‘view card’ from 1902). These stand confronted as ne’er-do-wells, possibly insurgents, hauling home smouldering debris in their sacks and panniers.
Weirdly, amongst the Victorian street furniture, the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, looks on forlornly from atop his monument (unveiled in 1882, this was regarded as perhaps the finest work by the great Dublin-born sculptor of Empire, John Henry Foley). Just around the corner, in “No Evidence of a 757 near The Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin ?” (2007), the Pentagon collapses messily into Liffey Street, as modern shoppers and office workers hurry to keep to their schedule.
Such a mirthsome Armageddon may seem like career- threatening material, but there is sheer visual delight here in some of the most masterful and accomplished collages Hillen has yet produced. According to himself, the real subject is “the powerful disinclination to believe one’s eyes in the face of overwhelming evidence for an unacceptable reality”. 4 While photomontage is demonstrably a noble art, paper collage malingers somewhere in the shadowlands between photography and art, and is rather looked down upon by the art establishment.
But even if there are conservation issues with paper and glue, it seems extraordinary that some major Irish public collections, such as IMMA and the Ulster Museum have not yet acquired any of Hillen’s works — even as there is renewed interest in the US and UK, including the museum in his native Newry.
With Hillen’s growing stature have come several large public commissions, by far the most significant being his winning design (with Desmond Fitzgerald) for the Omagh Bomb Memorial — an elaborate sculpture of mirrors which tracks the sun across the sky, and channels its beams of light into a sculptured ‘heart’ housed inside a huge glass pillar on the site of the atrocity.
Although it had no bearing on his dedicatory design, Hillen of course, was not insensible to the fact that this horrific event — the largest single terrorist attack on this island — is still shrouded in mystery and bitterness.
Once again, there are severe holes in the official version of events, and both Britain and the Republic have signally failed to bring anyone to justice, despite much circumstantial evidence, and reported warnings beforehand from at least two police informants.
These testimonies have been taken very seriously by Michael Gallagher (whose son Aidan died in the tragedy), the spokesperson for many families of the victims.
Along with many other families of victims of violence widely suspected to be state-sanctioned (such as those of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974), these families agonisingly await some of the vindication and “closure” afforded last month to the relatives of the dead of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry in 1972.
While predictably exonerating senior political and military leaders, Lord Saville’s report concluded that the killings had been “unjustified” (not “unlawful”, as had first been leaked to the media — but the soldiers are still potentially open to prosecution).
Most importantly, it trumpeted the absolute innocence of the victims, and nailed the “Big Lie” — resolutely maintained by the British state for 38 years since Widgery — that these people were killed because they were “nail bombers and gunmen”.