A New Gaze 2017
Eva O’Leary, Strip Mall, 2015, Archival Pigment Print, 81.3 × 101.6 cm
Water streams down the ochre stone steps towards the viewer, falling from one turquoise basin into another. The image is blurred, due to the long exposure time, giving the impression of a cascade issuing from a never-ending source. The water is so pure that the rocks show no sign of algae, or moss or any other living organism. The colours – turquoise and ochre – radiate like sunshine. The forms recall photographs of Caribbean waterfalls. Yet everything is too perfect, too clean to be true. The effect is unsettling. Could this be an island resort with a pool on Fiji? Or perhaps the sea-lion enclosure of some zoo? Or even a gold-digging scene from Disneyland? The landscape looks familiar – but where have we seen it before?
Eva O’Leary lets us dip briefly into the illusion. This is not nature, but a created landscape, made by people, for people. However, rather than letting us drown she helps us swim back to reality. Glass and metal is visible in the upper corners of the picture: escalators. So, is this all urban, artificial? The title, Strip Mall, gives it away. We are in an American shopping mall, accessible probably only by car. The idea is to create a pleasant ambience that will boost consumerism. The function of the cascade is crystal-clear. This is what makes the difference between a regular trip to the mall and a shopping "experience". The aim is to arouse positive feelings, simulate a calming sense of nature, bring visitors’ dreams to the fore. In short: seduction.
Eva O’Leary is creating the landscapes of a new era. The landscape has always been a stimulus to the imagination, and in Strip Mall, the artist is drawing the viewer into a world filled with promises. It is a place we already know from advertising and billboards. Buy, and gain entry to a better world. Money in exchange for dreams. It is not a great leap from those idealised poster images to this landscape of styrofoam and chlorinated water, or to the kinds of "nature" produced by a 3D printer. Increasingly, we are in danger of forgetting that we actually quite like a little moss on our rocks. So much so that when we’re travelling we’re almost disappointed to arrive and find the real thing.
O’Leary’s image acknowledges the co-existence of these two realities, but makes it clear that this new landscape has already become accepted: the artificial is already embedded in our world. At at the lower left of the image, coins are scattered on the stones. Whether we are standing before the Trevi Fountain in Rome or in front of the chlorinated waters of the strip mall, throwing in a coin brings luck. The difference is that the gods being thanked here are not the same ones. But they are no less powerful than the gods of ancient Rome. Quite the opposite.
Luisa Baselgia supervises the Vontobel Arts Collection as a project manager.
She studied history of art and photography at the University of Zurich and Basel and is an art mediator at the Fotozentrum Winterthur.