Helen Kirwan works with performance, moving image, installation and photography. Recurring themes are memory and memorial and fragment and trace. She asks what action can be taken, what objects can be assembled and what journeys can be made in the service of memory. She questions what is memory, how might it function and be represented. She is interested in the idea of the trace as a mark that has barely been made or may disappear: was something there, was something left behind?
Drawing on her own experience of a sudden and unsettling loss, Kirwan’s practice, for the past five years mainly has involved the undertaking of performances in remote, outdoor locations: these are filmed and the footage then edited to create single and multi-screen videos and installations. The performances generally are of futile, absurd tasks, such as measuring the sea with buckets or counting stones amongst billions of them on a vast shingle beach. They express physical traces of mourning and a form of keening. However, physical contact with objects and external surroundings serves also as a form of mapping (and survival): attempts at wayfinding through the wilderness and ‘fog’ or bewilderment of bereavement.
Kirwan has also a direct, performative commitment to travel, undertaking long journeys, especially in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. She is interested in the metaphorical construction of travel and migration and their textual and visual narratives as explored by Proust, Benjamin and (many) others. But above all, she is interested in Hegel’s concept of memory as a dynamic process, akin to transportation or endless motion. The sensorimotor/haptic elements of her performances serve as metaphors for endless searching and yearning and her ‘journeying’ puts her into endless motion (in a world without borders but with infinite webs of connections and disconnections).
Intrinsic to Kirwan’s futile performances and journeys is an essential incompletion which is itself the mode of fulfilment. Her work is underpinned by her interest in the concept of the philosophical fragment: for example, as expressed in her dissertation for her M.A. Aesthetics and Art Theory titled Early German Romanticism’s Enduring Themes in Contemporary Art Practice. Download: TEXT IMAGES (all images © Christoph Fink/Jöelle Tuerlinckx).
Schlegel posited a radical recasting of the concept as a dynamic form of creative practice which aims at fragmentation for its own sake and in which totality is both finite and plural at the same time. Thus, the fragment is a dynamic process of thinking that is both self-defined and simultaneously defining itself and which opens up questions about the relation between the finite and infinite, unity and chaos.Kirwan engages with Schlegel’s concept in her practice through acknowledging and exploring the partial nature of the fragment as a shard of memory oscillating between past, present and future. Kirwan questions time, space and existence as it oscillates between past, present and future and enquires into what is memory and how might it function and be represented. Central to this is the question of how is time in itself memorial and memory?
Her videos and video installations have been shown in galleries, festivals and cinemas in the USA, Cuba, France, Turkey, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, India, UK and Italy, in the 55th 56th and 57th Venice Biennale at Palazzos Bembo and Mora. Artist residencies include the Centre for Substructured Loss Berlin and ASK Department of Architecture, University of Ghent and she will be artist in residence at the Sirius Arts Centre, Ireland next year.
In 2013 she established an ongoing collaborative research project with Simon Pruciak, about the E40 highway, Image of the Road. Travelling along this UN conceived route by car from France to Kazakhstan, a 17,000 kilometre, 54 day return journey, with video, sound recordings and photography we captured daily movement, ambient sounds, conversations and interviews. This has since been exhibited as single and multi-screen video and installation in UK, France, India and Taiwan and is ongoing.
In 2013, Venetian Drift a video created jointly with Dr. Jane Madsen was shown within David Goldenberg’s collaborative installation The Transformation of Art during the 55th Venice Biennale. 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.
Kirwan practised law as a barrister in Dublin and London for nearly twenty years before becoming an artist full time. In 2000 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) followed, in 2002, by an M.F.A. in Fine Art Practice from the University of Middlesex, London and in 2004 an MA in Aesthetics and Art Theory at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, London.
She has taught contemporary art theory at a number of institutions including the University for the Creative Arts and Hastings College of Art and Technology.
Born in Ireland, she divides her time between the UK and Brussels when not travelling.
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.