Helen Kirwan is an artist working with performance, moving image and installation. Recurring themes are memory and memorial and fragment and trace. She is interested in the question of what is memory and how might it function and be visually represented.  She asks what action can be taken, what objects can be assembled and what journeys can be undertaken in the service of memory and how is time in itself memorial and memory.

Drawing on her own experience of sudden loss and choosing remote outdoor locations such as in Iceland and Connemara, Ireland, she creates videos of her performances of repetitive, absurd and pointless tasks:  stroking decayed plants
in a peat bog, measuring the sea with test tubes and buckets and the ground with
pieces of string-the physical traces of mourning.

Repetition evokes the ceaseless journeying and yearning that some psychologists identify as intrinsic to the bereavement process. The sensorimotor, haptic elements of her performances correspond to metaphors for wayfinding and mapping; feeling literally, the ground and one’s way through the darkness, wilderness and bewilderment of bereavement.

She is interested in journeying as a haptic, emotive terrain, a dynamic site of transit, connections and interrelationships. She explores also the metaphorical construction of memory through travel and it’s textual and visual narratives as expressed by Proust, Walter Benjamin and others. This inspires her direct, performative commitment to the long journeys which she has undertaken in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Intrinsic to these futile tasks and journeying is an essential incompletion which is itself the mode of fulfillment. This stems from Kirwan’s interest in Friederich Schlegel’s concept of the philosophical fragment as a dynamic, creative practice of fragmentation for its own sake in which totality is both finite and plural at the same time.

Kirwan practised law as a barrister in Dublin and London for nearly twenty years before becoming an artist full time. She has a B.A. First Class Honours in Fine Art from the University for the Creative Arts Canterbury (2000), MA in Fine Art from the University of Middlesex (2002) and an MA in Aesthetics and Art Theory (2004) from the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, London. She has taught fine art and historical and critical studies at a number of institutions including the University for the Creative Arts.

Her videos, video installations, and performances have been shown in galleries, festivals, and cinemas in many countries including the USA, Cuba, France, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, India, the UK, and during the 55th, 56th, 57th, 58th, and 59th Venice Biennales. She has undertaken artist residencies in Berlin and at KASK, University College Ghent. In the 2019 she was an artist in residence in Iceland and Ireland. In 2020/21 in Cyprus at the Cyprus Academy of Art concluded with a solo exhibition titled presencing at the Noise Gallery in Nicosia.


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An essay on Helen Kirwan by Dr. Jane Madsen
The recurring themes in Helen Kirwan’s conceptual practice are: memory and memorial and fragment and trace. For Helen, memory and memorial are not necessarily the same, but also, are not exclusive. Her work questions what is memory and how might it function and be represented, and what practices can be undertaken that are in the service of memory. These practices are subtle thoughtful and thought provoking, and include installation, assemblage, painting, drawing, moving image, photography and mapping. The memorial function of Helen’s work is not directly representative, in the commemorative sense that events or persons are remembered with an object that is their equivalent, but rather she asks what action can be done, and what objects can be assembled and what journeys can be taken as memorial. Central to this is the question of how is time is in itself memorial and memory? The themes suggested by her interest in the fragment and the trace is the pursuit of that which is apparently elusive, not necessarily in order to achieve a goal at the end but to consider the thing that can’t be held. Helen Kirwan’s work is underpinned by rigorous thinking and philosophical inquiry in to the concept of the fragment suggested by such thinkers as Schlegel, Benjamin and Adorno, and her own use of the fragment in her art work acknowledges and explores the partial nature of the fragment as a shard of memory. The idea of the trace is explored Helen’s fascination in the question of the mark that has barely been made or that may disappear, and asks was something there, and was something left behind? I have worked collaboratively with Helen Kirwan on several projects and have experienced her work and working methods directly, and have enjoyed and benefitted from her insight and precision of thought.
Dr. Jane Madsen 10.5.13

Jane Madsen is an artist and writer working in moving image; her work includes experimental films, installation and documentary. She has an MA in Fine Art from Middlesex University and she has recently gained a Ph.D. for her  interdisciplinary research  in Architectural Design at the Bartlett School of Architecture with practice supervised by the Slade School of Fine Art. She has taught at UAL in Fine Art, History and Theory. She has exhibited widely and written and published articles on film and art. Download the essay by Jane Madsen here.

Jennifer Thatcher in conversation with Helen Kirwan.

Helen Kirwan with Elena Parpa