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An empty set: Ghost Shops photographed

Irelantis and What’s Wrong? artist Sean Hillen turns his lens on the poignant phenomenon of retail spaces left deserted by the recession.

WHAT HAPPENS TO shops when they ‘die’? That’s what artist Seán Hillen has been exploring in a photography project currently on show in Dublin.

He told TheJournal.ie that he began taking the photographs over the last year or two, at first wanting just a simple record of what you see when you look in the window of a shop just at the point when it closes down.

The images in his project, Ghost Shops, are eerie and poignant, the empty retail spaces – “like a stage set without actors” – in contrast to the activity of the street reflected in the shop windows. He said: “I realised that the complex reflection was often of great potential interest, and that the mixture could tell a story”.

The deserted spaces reminded Hillen of stage sets:

In front we have glamour and dreams and behind we see breeze blocks and hanging wires… There is a sort of message – I can’t believe that it’s necessary that all these small businesses have to die and I think we should be paying more attention to this phenomenon which has become a political issue in Britain as 30 per cent of many regional high streets lie empty.

I have found photographing them very sad but felt the need to make some sort of memorial at least to these many working lives.

Hillen is the artist behind the hugely successful Irelantis collage series as well as the more recent politically-charged What’s Wrong? photomontage projects.

Ghost Shops has had its showing extended until 14 August on the top floor of Basecamp, at 108-109 Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. It is just one of scores of photographic exhibitions and events which are part of the PhotoIreland Festival, which is finishing up this week.

This is a slideshow of some of the images in Ghost Shop, with descriptions from Sean Hillen:

An empty set: Ghost Shops photographed
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  • BREAD by Sean Hillen

    This was a sandwich bar near the LUAS stop in Abbey Street which was suddenly closed some months ago. In this it looks like the day's bread delivery arrived and someone said, "Just put it there" and it had been sitting wilting in the window for a while when I found it. I thought that was paint on some of them - now I think it may be sandwich cheese...
  • CARS by Sean Hillen

    This is what had been a glamorous car showroom near the RDS. I had to cross a little ornamental lake to get right up to the windows but what a sight: The way the sky mixes with the interior is beautiful, it looks to me like a ruined Atlantean temple, just waiting for a robed priest to come out to one of those little podiums. The windows are presently covered by paper.
  • CHAIR by Sean Hillen

    A beautiful refurbished office space near Stephen's Green which has never been in use by the look of it. The luxury chairs now appear to be out on the pavement, reminding me strangely of famine eviction scenes with the furniture turned out into the fields.
  • MASK by Sean Hillen

    I confess I was excited when I peered into this little interior design, I think, shop in Rathgar and noticed the eye-like windows in the far distance so I manoeuvred myself into position to make a slightly haunting figure.
  • TOWER by Sean Hillen

    This was I think an estate agent's in Drogheda, and a very central site that may be back in use now. But it made an eerie and beautful scene peeking in on an early summer evening. I always find the presence of telephones quite sad. You wonder: do they ever ring?
  • TOY by Sean Hillen

    I noticed this lovely high-end toyshop in Dawson Street on my travels and wondered how it was getting on and indeed one day there it was - gone. This lady walked past with two young girls and as she said "..the toy shop's closed now.." One looked up at her and the other looked into the window, bemused. I find the '50% off' and the sparkly stars in the window add a desperate and tragic air.
  • WINE by Sean Hillen

    I had a great show last year with Peter Kennard at the Photo Archive in Temple Bar and bought the wine for the opening at this lovely little wine shop. The young man who ran it had bounded out to speak, full of enthusiasm and was just so keen to pass on his love of wine, so I found the discovery of it in this sudden closure extra sad. The discarded keys and freshly opened letter are sadly familiar in these photos.

All photographs copyright Sean Hillen. For more, see www.ghostshops.com, www.seanhillen.com and www.photoireland.org

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