Prevailing images/memories of Irish shopping centres in the late 80s and early 90s include:
The Ilac centre’s Soda Fountain with its thin Milk-Mate milkshakes and giant banana splits. Girls in too tight ski-pants with their version of the mullet (straight fringe at the front, curly mousse mess at the back) skimming the rails at Magic. That depressingly dull lighting and low ceilings of all shopping centres. The cream, custard and brown colour schemes, the little snot-smeared boys in non-ironic Castle Grayskull sweatshirts and cheap black pumps trying to avoid holding their Mam’s hand. The inevitable friendless Goth. The acres of pale limbed teens in sleeve less U2 t-shirts, skinheads in bomber jackets like Johnny One from Fair City and the never ending stream of rinse and set aul ones in their uniform of heavy felt coats and greying tights dragging their tartan trolleys behind them.
Back then the idea of shopping centres seemed to emit an image of glamourous freshness and even if the actual reality was the complete opposite we wanted our slice of Americana even if it was bizarrely mundane and slightly dingy. It in some way brought us closer to our trans-Atlantic cousins. When we thought of their ‘malls’ we thought of shiny marble floors, endless escalators, hundreds of interesting youth tribes with amazing hair, exciting shops and all sorts of exotic fast food we never knew existed.
That may have been the truth but by looking at Michael Galinksy’s collection of photos entitled Malls Across America taken in the early 90s the gulf of difference does not seem that wide. Due to the generic fashions and homogenous architecture you could be looking at any shopping centre across Ireland at that time (okay apart from the guy in the Mickey Mouse belly top…)
What makes these photos so appealing and oddly touching is the nostalgia bound up in them. They are from a not so distant past, a more reassuring time when we saved up to buy tapes in Tape World, when burgers and chips were still a foreign novelty, when there was only one kind of coffee, when pleather was deemed sartorially acceptable to the point of being chic.
It’s a hymn to the empty excitement of consumerism and the nonsensical hold it has on our lives. The collection is imbued with a sense of the everyday melancholy but also manage to be a pop-anthropological feast. From the lonely girl in the puffy cardigan and runner boots staring wistfully into the shop window, the group of mulleted teens occupying a wall, the gathering of Golden Girls on the bench they’re all a signifier to some fuzzy half memory.
Looking at these photos now they could be stills from an Ariel Pink video, these are the sub-characters of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the extras in Donnie Darko. They’ve now been subverted. We are removed from them and can view them from the odd space of artful irony meets comforting homeliness. We’re looking at the time when we believed in a future of food pills , hover skateboards and dressing top to toe in silver, where the disappointments and failures of modern living were yet to be written. It’s somehow quaint but thoroughly unsettling to see a time we once thought so sophisticated to be rendered innocent.