Although nature and its range of possible representations provide his ostensible subjects, Eamon O’Kane’s artistic practice is deeply rooted in the artist’s enduring love-hate relationship with the institutional structures that contemporary art requires for its very survival. Museums, art galleries, libraries, cultural centers, public agencies, corporate headquarters, charitable foundations, and university faculties -- among other manmade organizations -- possess both a physical reality and an abstract identity as intellectual constructs, both of which we generally take for granted as providing a more or less invisible, or neutral, backdrop for the art object. For O’Kane, the relationship between an artwork and its socio-cultural context is anything but neutral, and his art’s attempted reconciliation with history far from resolved. On the contrary, every representation of nature in O’Kanes work tends to be conditioned by – one could even say tangled up with – the terms of its location within the constructed world, including, as its base line, the artist’s home and studio.
It’s not hard to illustrate the means by which this built-in ambivalence toward art’s institutionalization becomes constituted. In the vast majority of cases, a painting hangs on a wall, which forms part of a building, which sits on a plot of land, that itself is situated within an urban complex, which has in turn been developed in counterpoint to the natural ecosystem that surrounds it. If we take as a starting place that this painting hanging on the wall is a representation of nature, then on some level it is also a picture of the struggle to reconcile the distance – both literal and metaphorical – between the invented image and the reality it depicts, several layers away. One way of envisioning this struggle is as a series of concentric rings, in which the innermost and outermost rings are both recognizable iterations of nature, separated by several intermediate layers of a non-natural (but no less material) reality. Even the plot of land where the building is situated is more part of the constructed world than its natural counterpart, since its perimeter and borders have likely been determined by factors that are inherently non-environmental.
Since at least 2005, which is when this writer first became acquainted with his work, O’Kane has used architecture as a jumping-off point for his meditations on nature by way of its mirror-opposite. One highly successful manifestation of this project is the ‘Ideal Homes’ series, in which iconic houses and housing styles from Bauhaus through Brutalism are transposed into idyllic settings, surrounded by lush sylvan landscapes that are only partially visible, but nonetheless designed to instill a kind of envy in the viewer for their impossible mix of utopian fantasy and bucolic sublime. That such combinations of built and natural spaces are largely impossible to realize in actual life seems to be O’Kane’s point: somewhere along the way, once modernism had shelved the Romantic attachment to nature as the ultimate point of reference, the very possibility of living in harmony with the natural order seemed irrelevant, except as a kind of anti-modern regression. Exceptions to this dichotomy do exist – many of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses and studios are ideally sited within their landscape --, but the elusive goal of a utopian lifestyle for the working classes, as envisioned by Le Corbusier, ended up drastically short-changing any aspirations toward balance on the part of its actual inhabitants.
O’Kane’s ‘Ideal Home’ series provides a kind of forlorn look backwards at the twentieth century’s dubious legacy of utopian ideals fused with standardized practices. That these re-contextualized structures are presented as a kind of perfection which does not actually exist generates a slight tug at our sense of the beautiful, as if suggesting that the ingredients for getting the formula correct were there all along, but we can only avail ourselves of them today through acts of creative revisionism. To reinforce this feeling of imaginary perfection, O’Kane imbues many of his images and structures with a palpably nostalgic sheen, as if to suggest that the search for a way forward begins with a more incisive, less doctrinaire, interpretation of the recent past. His impersonation of the role of architect functions in much the same way, deliberately confusing the identities of artist and urban planner, while carefully omitting most of the cues necessary to let the viewer in on the deception. In this way, works like the ‘Architect’s Studio,’ and the 2009 ‘Eames Studio Limerick,’ do not invite the public to concern themselves with the purported authenticity of the situation, but instead lures them into an interactive exchange with aspects of the history of architecture that had previously been understood as fixed in time and place.
For his 2008 installation at The Economist Plaza in London, O’Kane built a freestanding circular panoramic structure whose interior could be viewed only through a row of viewing lenses placed along the outer wall. With its suggestion of constructions sites where passersby can follow the real-time progress of a building’s erection, O’Kane’s project, titled, ‘Panorama – I like shopping centres and shopping centres like me,’ makes ironic use of the title for Joseph Beuys’ watershed performance piece to further underscore the conditional nature of the artwork in its setting. Rather than offer slightly shifting views of a uniform subject, O’Kane’s lenses enable viewers to peer at renderings of cityscapes, architectural models and sculptures of plants that all subtly contradict one another in scale and perspective, along with occasional glimpses of the actual office building towering over the entire panorama. From some perspectives, plants appear to overwhelm buildings, while from others the vista is foreshortened by our gazing into an empty studio or office. As none of the lenses provides a synthesized view of the structure in its entirety, viewers are more or less forced to absorb the work piecemeal, accumulating a series of partial perspectives that, taken separately, offer conflicting perspectives on what’s actually inside.
All of these works -- along with a concurrent investigation into the botanical legacy of the Roman Empire in Britain, and an installation that addresses the overlapping histories of his parents’ home in Ireland and the siege of Derry by King James II in 1689 – have been assembled together under the collective title ‘Case Histories’. The title is revealing insofar as it further underscores the influential roles of psychology and memory in the interwoven histories of nature, country, family, art, and architecture that O’Kane deploys as his building blocks. In a sense, each installation describes one of several distinct typologies, within which a range of related issues can be understood using a changing set of variables. As employed by Freud, among others, to indicate an ongoing body of research, each separate narrative diagnosing a distinct pathology, O’Kane’s title also indicates that in his work the problem of history, and the artist’s relationship to it, is the question that most closely ties an artist to the fundamental uncertainties of his era. A collective anxiety regarding the collective future tends to be the ideal justification for coming to terms with the problematic world of the past, which none of us actually built, but all of us inhabit.
—By Dan Cameron
Dan Cameron is Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art, CA, US.
Dan Cameron spent five years (2006-2011) founding and directing Prospect New Orleans, an international biennial developed to bring art world attention to post-Katrina New Orleans. For most of that period, Cameron also served as Director of Visual Arts for the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, where he organized the group exhibitions Something from Nothing, Make-it-Right, Previously on Piety, Interplay, Then and Now, Patterns and Prototypes, and Hot Up Here.
From 1995 to 2006 Cameron was Senior Curator at the New Museum in downtown Manhattan, where he organized numerous important group and solo exhibitions, including retrospectives of Carolee Schneemann, William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy, Doris Salcedo, Marcel Odenbach, Faith Ringgold, David Wojnarowicz, Carroll Dunham, Martin Wong, and Cildo Meireles.
In 2003 Cameron served as Artistic Director for the 8th Istanbul Biennial, entitled Poetic Justice, and in 2006 he co-organized the 10th Taipei Biennial, Dirty Yoga. From 2002 to 2011, Cameron organized ten successive editions of the annual Next Wave Art exhibition at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
He has taught on the graduate faculties of Columbia University, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, was Guest Professor for the International Curator Course of the 2010 Gwangju Biennale in Korea, and visiting professor in the graduate art history department of Louisiana State University in 2011. Since 1982, Cameron has published hundreds of book, catalog and magazine texts on contemporary art.