The Irish Times, 20. August 2001
THIS YEAR'S KILKENNY ARTS FESTIVAL HELPED TAKE CHALLENGING WORK OUT OF THE GALLERY AND ONTO THE STREETS
But in Kilkenny itself, Gottfried Helnwein, the Tipperary-resident Austrian
artist, has taken to the streets in a big way. His photorealist images are
much happier dispersed around the town and in the castle courtyard than they
are penned up in Butler House, where their upfront directness and aspirations
to cinematic scale sit a little uneasily.
Helnwein is famously confrontational, and his bold conflations of Nazi and
Christian iconography, in Epiphany and other prominently displayed pictures,
predictably generated some friction. Yet, in a way, one shouldn't rush to condemn
condemnations of, or expressions or resignation about, Helnwein's work, no
matter how superficial or uninformed they turn out to be. Because, let's face
it, a large part of its effectiveness had to do with its calculated, barbed
The point of the images is that they put it up to you as a viewer. Given that,
one potential line of criticism is that they are designed solely to be provocative,
like Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley. But the abiding strength of
Helnwein's work is that provocation is a means rather than an end; it is -
however uncomfortable - morally grounded, if not necessarily in a way that
will please all observers...
His beautiful photographs of Kilkenny children are, collectively, a recognisable
derivative of his work Selection, which implicitly placed the viewer in the
position of someone marking children for extermination. Strong stuff.
If that seems irrelevant in an Irish context, one could always point to Northern
Ireland and to the scandals that have shaken the complacent authority of church
and state in recent years.
What is more innocent, more open, more charming than the face of a child? Except
that we are more than ever uncomfortably aware that the act of looking is not
at all innocent, and Helnwein's children, with their closed, downcast eyes,
decline to meet our collective gaze. Why? Perhaps because they insist on remaining
within the orbits of their imaginations.
There is also, however, a slight unease arising from the uniformity of the
images and the awareness that the subjects are being directed. Helnwein has
a knack for throwing responsibility for what we are looking at back onto us,
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