The artist Sean Hillen doesn't walk across the room, he scampers. And when he laughs, as he frequently does, it's of a timbre that makes the other people in the foyer miss a beat from their own conversations, pause and turn to look at him. All the time he's talking non-stop: crisscrossing at random through the story of his past like a Vespa rider taking an arcane route through the uncertain back streets of Naples.
The sense of the surreal lingers around Hillen like a nimbus. Almost the first thing he says is: "I was born in Newry an hour after Yuri Gagarin landed after his journey through space." On the surface, these two facts seem to have no connection other than the one which Hillen makes, but this remark could be read as an analogy for his work, where different realities collide, creating something new in the process.
Sean Hillen has brilliantly reinvented John Hinde's landscapes of Ireland - themselves images of an imaginary land, where skies and sea are improbable blocks of solid-blue, and sunsets are composed of Pacific oranges and pinks - into scenes from a place called Irelantis. He has now collected these images into a book of the same name, with an introduction by Fintan O'Toole.
The photomontages of Hillen's Irelantis depict scenes where a Virgin Mary shimmers at the end of the sunlit passage in Newgrange; where a man sits in a field overlooking Carlingford Lough and regards three pyramids on the lough's shores; where the Four Courts are seen through the pillars of the Temple of Apollo; and where Trinity perches at the edge of the Cliffs of Moher, spray falling over those people walking past Front Gate.
Hillen works mainly with John Hinde postcards, removing sections of them and filling in the missing spaces with the unexpected. "The scalpel is a shovel and the slicing of postcards like cutting turf," he says in one of the illuminating captions that accompany the images.
His early work with the postcards began when he was living in London. A foundation year in the Belfast College of Art was followed by the London School of Printing, and then the Slade. "I took those postcards of tourist London, pictures of the Queen and Buckingham Place and superimposed photographic details of the conflict in the North over them. I wanted to show the parallel realities of two different places. But it was very stressful work, I was over and back, photographing funerals in Derry, afraid of offending people all the time. I hid that work for a long time."
Although Hillen was offered a teaching job at the Slade, he turned it down, because he wanted to concentrate full-time on his own work. "It was partly laziness and partly self-sacrifice," he admits with disarming honesty. Money was always short, and his lifestyle was very simple. "I lost relationships with people I was really in love with because I was broke all the time," he says, looking haunted.
Alternative career possibilities turned up in the form of invention. While at the Slade, Hillen invented a printing machine which won a prize at the UK Design Council Award, and attracted much media attention in the process. For a time, it looked as if he would make a considerable amount of money out of developing the patent, but then a near-similar patent turned up, which was filed several decades ago, and the industry's interest in him instantly vanished.
He came back to Ireland from London in 1993, and started working on the Irelantis series soon after. "I wanted to do work that was full of love instead of full of anxiety. And I hadn't been able to show a lot of the work I did in London, because it was too political for the galleries over there, with the Peace Process coming. I wanted to do something different."
Again, he worked with Hinde postcards, of which he has amassed a huge collection. "A lot of the cards I've used were originally sent to RTE for postal competitions and sold on to dealers. So they've had a whole other life before I came to use them." Most of the 28 originals in the Irelantis series are now in private collections, and some have been bought by the State. He's been told that Sun, Sand, and Cement in Temple Bar hangs in Bertie Ahern's office, and The Four Courts from the Temple of Apollo in the Attorney Gereral's office.
His own favourite is The Queen of Heaven Appears at Newgrange. "I wanted to take religious art seriously and give it a new life." Apart from the reproductions of the work itself, Hillen's explanatory accompanying captions are bound to make you laugh out loud. The caption that goes with Horse Racing Near the Ruins of Stephen's Green reads: "I long felt an urge to dismantle this shopping centre (Stephen's Green) so I did. It's a sort of amiable post-Apocalyptic place, where the roads are best used for horse racing and the bus stop becomes the finishing post. The dummies are still standing in the Benetton window and the dome is slightly Hiroshima."
There was also a limited edition of signed lazer prints of the images, available through galleries, most of which have now sold. "I've been so broke I've stood in Stephen's Green selling those lasers for whatever I could get for them." Curious American tourists inquired how they could get to the pyramids that are depicted on the banks of Carlingford - and he took it as one of the best compliments of his work.
Hillen's reputation has built up considerably in the last few years. He had 23 pieces in a critically acclaimed show at the Royal Festival Hall in London this year, which was then shown at the Royal Photographic Society. He has also "bitten the lip" and accepted some commissions.
He designed the set for Barabbas's magical madcap show, The White Headed Boy: "I'd do anything for Gerry Stembridge. He told me to go mad. I went a bit bonkers with that set." He has also designed graphics for a BBC science programme, and, in an inspirational bit of commissioning, was asked by First Active to make a piece from their collection of counterfeit notes.
Irelantis, the book, is a financial risk. Hillen and three others have put up £25,000 to publish the 5,000 copies. They also have a website, www.irelantis.com from which they hope to sell the book. "Every artist needs to have their work in a book," he says, staring at the newly-published book as if he can't quite believe it's his work. "Look," he says, with unselfconscious excitement, taking the jacket off the book. He points to Irelantis stamped in silver letters on the cover underneath. "Look at that. Isn't that beautiful?" he says with wonder. It's an appropriate cover for the artist who specialises in finding surprises beneath surfaces.
Irelantis, by Sean Hillen, is £19.95, published by Irelantis Ltd