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Seán Hillen: ‘The oxygen of publicity is everything for an artist’

The artist talks about his famous collages involving John Hinde postcards, growing up in Newry during the Troubles, and being the subject of new documentary Tomorrow Is Saturday

It requires no work to get Seán Hillen talking. Set him running and without prompting he will run through every aspect of a fascinating artistic life.

Growing up in Newry during the Troubles (a phrase he doesn’t like). Picking up a camera and documenting the unrest. Studying at the Slade School in London. An on and off relationship with the Imperial War Museum that caused him grief. Return to Ireland. The popularity of his famous collages involving John Hinde postcards. A diagnosis with Asperger syndrome late in life. His suspicion that something is up with the clouds. And much more.

Compact, mischievous, endlessly articulate, he will train his unaltered south Down accent on any subject that wanders within his path. Ask about how he got started with a camera and you will get the second chapter of a potentially excellent autobiography.

That whole Goldsmith’s thing was a social, cultural thing – the Thatcher era of lifestyle journalism

“There were cameras in the house,” he says. “My grandfather had done photography when that involved a glass plate on the roof of the shed. He was a tinkerer. He repaired clocks. He was a railwayman and he obviously had some Asperger – not a lot of it. I loved the old cameras as things. Then I found you could wind modern film back into the camera. I was hooked.”

He has just as much to say when talking about the complex business of growing up as a Catholic in an occupied part of the island.

“I don’t get asked to lecture much anymore,” he says. “But when I do I talk about watching Blue Peter and Magpie. We couldn’t get RTÉ because it was too fuzzy. Once a year the band of the Royal Marines would come in and parade around the Blue Peter studio. I adored Blue Peter, but, as I used to say to audiences, you could look out the window in Newry and see the same guys wearing full camouflage in your back garden.”

There is plenty more of this in a wonderful new documentary from Gillian Marsh and Gretta Ohle – among the best Irish films of the year so far – called Tomorrow Is Saturday. We watch as Hillen attempts to reorder a tiny Dublin cottage  swamped in the detritus of a singularly busy life. He talks us through the ups and downs and, eventually, introduces us to Amy, a kindred spirit whom he met on a dating site.

When the film premiered digitally at the Galway Film Fleadh in July, more than a few rocked back at the final images of Séan and Amy coping reasonably with Covid isolation. Tomorrow Is Saturday might be the first lockdown movie.

“We had stopped filming,” Ohle tells me. “Then we heard that Amy had got sequestered here. And we thought that will be great to see how they are functioning in that small house together. We went in socially distanced and got the ending we needed – a hopeful one.”

There is much positivity in Tomorrow Is Saturday. But one recurring theme of the picture is the difficulty even a relatively well-known artist will encounter staying afloat in the capitalist bearpit. At the turn of the century, Hillen’s Irelantis project secured attention beyond the insular world of the fine-art elite. Collaging images from John Hinde postcards to create a fantastic imaginary version of Ireland – the Four Courts glimpsed through the Temple of Apollo – the pictures combined wit, precision and a taste for subversion. A book was published with an introduction by this newspaper’s Fintan O’Toole.

Hillen, meanwhile, became a familiar figure round Dublin – a bustling chatterbox in a pork pie hat. Yet the film confirms that he still struggles to make a decent living. There is no money in being a character. 

Hillen saw the film as an opportunity to advertise himself.

“I am probably in double figures of micro-documentaries,” he says of earlier films. “I have a sense of how it all works. The oxygen of publicity is everything for an artist.”

Given that he is an instigator of the project, we should not be surprised that he turns out to be so open. No subject is off limits. His frankness is sometimes disarming.

“I took this as no holds barred,” he says. “It is my nature. It is the Asperger thing. I am more comfortable this way. It has been a hallmark of me and the work. I am not going to stop pretending otherwise. The one downside is that I work with art dealers and they are a bit scared of the poor mouth. Nothing succeeds like success.”

This is interesting. Nobody would confuse Hillen with the banal arch-capitalist Jeff Koons. One suspects his fans rather like the idea that he lives amid chaos (a little less so at the end of the documentary) in a quaint cottage near Croke Park. But maybe the art world is still in thrall to the ironic bling that characterised the Young British Artist movement in the mid-1990s.

Hillen has bumped into Damien Hurst and fellow YBAs – many graduates of Goldsmith’s College – through the years. “I met him when he was an undergraduate and I was successful,” he says. “He was likely to do well, but not the greatest artist. That whole Goldsmith’s thing was a social, cultural thing – the Thatcher era of lifestyle journalism. A very odd moment. Suddenly the middle classes discovered art again. But the art of the shock. What mattered was that you were in the Sunday Times every f**king week.”

Art school

Let us go back to Newry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Tomorrow is Saturday paints a grim picture of that era. We get the sense that, had some cards turned over differently, Hillen might, like so many of his contemporaries, have ended up being involved with the paramilitaries. It would be bathetic to suggest that art saved him, but his talent certainly brought him away from the action. It also helped that he had endlessly decent parents.

“My father was a trade union man,” he says. “And he discovered that he couldn’t get any further up a certain point in the union because it was still an apartheid state. He couldn’t get beyond a certain point in the bus service. But I was brought up to respect everyone and to love everyone. I learnt that identity was mixed up with power. That’s a very messy thing.”

He began shooting the troubled streets of Newry with his grandad’s camera. He remembers “hiding in plain sight” rather than squatting behind corners or wearing disguises. He was always happy to dress loudly and stand proud.

“Yeah, if people are looking at you anyway they will tend to look at you and dismiss you,” he says. “The camera is a defence. You can hide behind that if you look as if you know what you are doing.”

I could have disappeared from history. It is only in the last few years that I have committed to hang on for grim death

Hillen went to the Belfast College of Art, London College of Printing and then the Slade School of Fine Art. As he tells it, that branch of University College London is a very anti-establishment sort of establishment. The college, set up partly to accommodate Jews and Catholics who would not be accepted elsewhere, gave the world such varied luminaries as Derek Jarman, Eileen Gray, Constance Markievicz, Richard Hamilton and Paul Nash. Hillen gives the sense that he was able to stretch out and breath at the college.

“It was before the Thatcher era and arts schools were still quite liberal,” he says. “There was no signing in or anything like that. You could move around. I learnt a bit of filmmaking. I was six or seven years at arts school and the word ‘career’ was never mentioned.”

Much of Hillen’s work was connected with the conflict in Northern Ireland. He notes how, at the time, many people seemed to think it was “in bad taste” to address those subjects. 

“Oh, it was seen as ‘bad art’ by definition,” he says. “Absolutely. That was widespread. I can understand that. Here in Dublin, Irelantis has been successful, but the Troubles work? People didn’t want to see it. It was on the doorstep. I can understand it.”

Clouds

Hillen returned to Ireland in the 1990s to be near his ageing parents. They never saw him get rich. But they were able to enjoy his acceptance as a cultural force of the age. Seamus Heaney opened the Irelantis exhibition and reproductions of the work began appearing in the most unlikely places. As the documentary makes clear, however, his life remains something of a struggle. No enormously wealthy benefactor has made him into an Andy Warhol. He plugs away with scalpel and camera in his little house. 

Much of his time has recently been spent photographing clouds. Here we get into tricky territory. Hillen believes that irregularities in the formations suggest that something mysterious is afoot among the heavens.

“Growing up in the North makes one conspiracy minded,” he says. “You have seen a shooting and know the BBC is lying about it. Weather modification is a real thing. There is no question about it. You can Google it. The idea that somebody is messing with the clouds is so mind-boggling that I am fascinated. I do not know what’s going on in the clouds, but to me the clouds do not look right.”

Meanwhile, he corresponded with Amy, an American, on the internet. She eventually came over to Dublin, they formed a happy relationship and Ohle got an ending for her film.

“We are very, very lucky to find one another,” he says. “We are both artists and neither of us are rich. But we are made for each other. We did it through internet dating. I discovered that women near enough my age in Ireland were not interested in an artist with no money.”

For all Séan Hillen’s agreeability, there is real steel here. He has needed that metal to keep ploughing through the years of penury. He talks warmly of Amy, but there is no hint of sentimentality. You get the sense that he would be a hard man to argue with.

“I could have disappeared from history,” he says. “It is only in the last few years that I have committed to hang on for grim death. I will not be defeated.” 

Tomorrow Is Saturday screens on Sunday, September 27th at the IFI Documentary Festival. 

IFI Documentary Festival

Like every other arts festival in the time of Covid, the IFI Documentary Festival has had to tack and trim with the plague winds. The upcoming event will take place in both the IFI’s famous building in Temple Bar and on the Institute’s video-on-demand platform IFI@Home.

Events kick off on September 21st with a showing of Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise. Following that study of the fires that wiped out a Californian town in 2018, Howard will be among those participating in a live Q&A. Other highlights include Gillian Marsh’s The Funeral Director, studying Sligo undertaker David McGowan; Christopher Kepple’s A Call to Arts, concerning artist Helen Hooker and her husband Ernie O’Malley; and Nino Tropiano’s Samira’s Dream, which examines a Zanzibari women seeking to become a primary school teacher.

There is no more celebrated Irish filmmaker than Pat Collins, director of Song of Granite, and the opportunity to see his excellent new film Henry Glassie: Field Work, a hit at Galway and the Toronto International Film Festival, should be eagerly grasped. Sheila de Courcy will host a Q&A with the people behind this study of an influential ethnologist. Michael McCormack’s Breaking Out concerns Fergus O’Farrell, charismatic singer with Interference, who died of muscular dystrophy in 2016. Once again, filmmakers will be in attendance. There is plenty more in the packed schedule.

The IFI Documentary Festival runs September 21st-27th

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