Helen Kirwan is a British-Irish conceptual artist. She practised law as a barrister in Dublin and London for nearly twenty years before becoming an artist full time. She took a B.A. First Class Honours in Fine Art at the University for the Creative Arts Canterbury ( then the Kent Institute of Art & Design) in 2000 followed by an M.F.A. in Fine Art Practice from the University of Middlesex, London in 2002. In 2004 she achieved an MA in Aesthetics and Art Theory at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, now at Kingston University London.
Drawing on her own experience of a sudden and unsettling loss, her work explores mourning and the portrayal of grief, questioning what is memory and how might it function and be represented. Her practice is informed by the philosophical concept of the fragment especially as expressed by Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and which she explored in her dissertation ‘Early German Romanticism’s Enduring Themes in Contemporary Art Practice’ ( (M.A., Aesthetics and Art Theory 2004): it can be downloaded here: [text] [images] -all images © Christoph Fink / Jöelle Tuerlinckx. In this context, the fragment is a dynamic process of thinking that is both self-defined and simultaneously defining itself and thus opens up questions about the relation between the finite and infinite, unity and chaos.
Through a variety of media she explores what activities can be undertaken in the service of memory. Her recent works include Fragment and Trace (2015) and Memory Theatre (2017), videos exhibited during the most recent 56th and 57th Venice Biennale in ‘Personal Structures’ an official collateral event. It presents a woman whose husband died: suddenly. Her lament includes pacing and measuring. She knows the absurdity of these processes and their exquisite agony. But it’s the futility which generates the activity and lies at its core. She has subsequently invited to show Fragment and Trace in a number of countries including in the Bodrum International Biennale, Turkey, the Rapid Pulse performance art festival, Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago(2016) and the International Festival of video Art Camaguey, Cuba (2017).
In 2014, she created the video installation Sadness of Farewell, exhibited during the Folkestone Triennial fringe. It was inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889) in which the poet contemplates his transition from life to death in terms of putting out to sea. The video’s deadpan images of the sea and the horizon portray the sea as an apeiron: infinite and boundless, beyond the imagination or concept of ‘man’.
Kirwan also set up Image of the Road, a collaborative research project with Simon Pruciak which visually documented the European Union’s E40 Highway, from France to Kazakhstan. During the trip the artists captured daily movement along the road, ambient sounds, conversations and interviews at service stations.
In 2013, she presented her video Venetian Drift created with artist Jane Madsen within David Goldenberg’s collaborative project The Transformation of Art and shown in the exhibition Personal Structures, Palazzo Bembo, during the the 55th Venice Biennale, 2013.
In 1997, she founded, together with Dr. Mary-Lou Barratt, the collaboration B+K which aims to interrogate traditional modes of art making and reception. She is a member of the Post Autonomy Group. Download C.V._T_HELEN KIRWAN_MAY_2017.docx.
An essay on Helen Kirwan by 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 her current interdisciplinary research is a PhD 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.