Trying to Behave is the first in a series of three exhibitions by Theresa Nanigian and it features beautiful, formal, high-definition photographs of dancing partners who take part in the regular tea dances at the Royal Opera house in Covent Garden. Isolated against black backgrounds, impeccably costumed and poised, they are tea dance royalty, utterly committed to what they are doing. As Nanigian puts it, it's not just a pastime, it's a passion.
Her sister was visiting from the US and she was showing her around London when, she says, “I happened to stumble on it”. She went back to the tea dance repeatedly and eventually persuaded the organisers and dancers to allow her to photograph them. “What struck me was that it was such a positive, joyful occasion. It was incredibly fulfilling for them.”
The show also includes a video of members of the Macushla Dance Club who meet weekly at DanceHouse in Foley Street, Dublin.
Aoife Ruane, director of the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, is curating the three shows under the collective title Just a Bit Extraordinary, which will be at the Highlanes later in the year. A different strand of work feeds into each but there is an underlying concern with wellbeing. That preoccupation began with a work for a previous show, Not Sorry at the Drogheda gallery in 2014. It consisted of a series of detailed, almost forensic photographs of teenagers' bedrooms. The teenagers were not in their rooms but their personalities were fully in evidence.
“For teenagers – and I had two at the time – their bedrooms are their personal spaces. Within certain constraints. I had this idea of making a portrait of someone in the form of the things they own, the things they choose to have around them, the images they have on the wall.” All of which could appear unsettling but, she found, usually reflected an inner vitality, curiosity and search for identity – a basic wellbeing.
From that she began to think of tracing that idea of wellbeing across the lifespan: teenagers, middle years and later years. The people in Trying to Behave are in the later stages of their lives. The inbetween stage, the middle years, will be represented at the Limerick City Gallery in the next of the three shows, also later in 2017 – she thinks of them as three chapters – and the final instalment, back at Highlanes, will see the publication of a book combining all the constituent parts.
The subjects of the middle years – "I was thinking, you've moved away from your parents, you may have children, but you are not yet a grandparent" – are vendors on Venice Beach in California.
“At that stage of your life,” as Nanigian sees it, “you are usually preoccupied with earning a living. And the vendors on Venice Beach are an extreme example of that”. The vendors operate on plots opposite the conventional shopfronts. The set-up might appear haphazard but has an anarchic order.
“Many of them sleep on the beach. Individually, they have had problems, you usually find. They are dealing with stuff in their lives. They don’t pay for their spaces but it’s very regulated, a timetable governs when they can be there and there are rules about what they can sell.”
You might think it would be predatory, she observes, but, spending time there, she learned that it was a functioning subculture with a co-operative spirit. It you got a space, it was yours. Interlopers would not be tolerated. People made a modest but adequate living. The show will include a soundscape based on recordings made on the spot, plus samples of what the vendors sell and brief personal details.
What I didn't expect was that my prior life would start to seep into my art work
Nanigian's turn to art was a major change of direction in her life. Originally from Boston, she obtained a BSc at Babson College Massachusetts, an MBA at Columbia and then worked in management consultancy. "We were working on long-term planning and we did it by saying, think of yourself 10 years hence, and then work backwards."
At home that evening, chatting to her partner (who is Irish) she thought of applying that to their own lives. “I’d always wanted to go to art school and, working back from the future, I thought, if you don’t do it now, you never will.”
Following a year studying art in New York they moved to Dublin and she attended IADT in Dún Laoghaire and then completed an MA in media at NCAD with Kevin Atherton.
“What I didn’t expect was that my prior life would start to seep into my art work.” She found herself devising projects utilising analytical and statistical methods. Gradually she became reconciled to this. “Your history is part of who you are.” For a 2011 project (an RHA and Trinity School of Medicine initiative), she became a guinea pig, using any available means to map her own “cognitive function and temperament”. It was a slippery slope: now she’s in the final year of a degree course in psychology at UCD. “I’m mainly interested in cognitive function and wellbeing.”
A number of concise, printed, declarative statements form part of Trying to Behave and more will be incorporated in the subsequent shows. They are responses to the Twenty Statements Test (TST) devised by psychologists Manfred Kuhn and Thomas McPartland in 1954 as a means of assessing self-perception. "It's really simple. Each line begins with 'I am .. .' and you go on from there, 20 times."
She has compiled responses from every group she’s come into contact with. As she notes, the results can be bland or startling, but they do usually give you a picture of an individual. Looking at the span of Nanigian’s endeavours to date, one suspects that she could add social anthropology as an interest at every phase of her development.
‘Trying to Behave’ at The LAB, Foley St, Dublin, Until June 4th, thelab.ie