helnwein archive

Kilkenny Arts Festival 2001, catalogue – July 1, 2001

Installation at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2001


by Clare O' Donoghue

One of the most exciting aspects of prgramming the visual arts for the Kilkenny Arts Festival has to be the organic nature of the event, the opportunity it affords to take ideas and allow them to grow and develop. The interaction between the people involved is what makes these exhibitions so special. In this showing of new and existing works by Gottfried Helnwein what started as a small part of the visual arts programme has, because of the power of the artist and his work and the openness of the whole festival team involved, grown to make a substantial statement and to produce an exhibition that is very particular to this city. Although some of the works have been shown in other cities around the world, the particularity of the chosen sites and the involvement of the local community make this an exhibition not just about the artist and his work, but also about the people of Kilkenny.

Installation at the Kilkenny Arts Festival 2001

Ninety children from around the city and country were photographed by the artist here in the High Street and nine are displayed in central locations around the city, dramatically enlarged up to 9 metres high. This ongoing project, begun here, will continue in other cities and towns in Ireland as the artist intends to expand the work to include one thousand Irish children. These beautiful,confident and happy children from Kilkenny contrast starkly with some of his more disturbing imagery. The juxtaposition of historical photographs of the Nazi regime with religious imagery of the Madona and Child in the "Epiphany" series can make uneasy viewing not only in Germany and Austria but also here in Kilkenny.

Amongst a number of possible readings of these works is the uncomfortable relationship between the church and oppression in its various forms. However, as the artist Nolde said, "harmless pictures seldom mean anything". Nolde was banned from painting by the Nazi regime.

Children are a strong theme troughout the artist's work and some of Helnwein's most striking and poignant images are those of the dead babies "Angels Sleeping", that the artist discovered in a laboratory in Vienna, babies from the 19th century preserved in fomraldehyde, some deformed and disabled, that never had a chance of life. By presenting us with these images both in the painted form and sometimes as 4 or 5 metre vinyl prints he is in his own way giving them life and their brief existance meaning while confronting us with the absolute beauty and wonder of human life in all its form. For me these images are both profoundly moving and spiritual.

Although we are only showing a small aspect of the artist's work it has become clear that wherever the setting may be for these works, the central core of his concerns are universal to humanity. Gottfried Helnwein is an artist with a commanding vision and commitment to making a positive difference. The whole process, from the chance viewing of an exhibition in London that had the power to imprint images and ideas on the mind in such a way as to make it imperative to find out more, to the discussions with the artist and with the people of Kilkenny about what these works mean to him and to us has been an inspiring journey that is part of the meaning of the work. This art has the authority to stop us in our tracks, provoke discussion and maybe even action in a world where we are often just numbed by the flickering images of burtality.

01.Jul.2001 Kilkenny Arts Festival 2001 Clare O' Donoghue