I remember. I remember now what it was like being a teenager. That incredibly intense period when there is absolute certainty tempered by soulful doubt in equal measure.
The catalyst for such remembered emotions are the super large photographs of teenager’s bedrooms by the artist Theresa Nanigian on display at the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda. Though the teenagers featured remain anonymous and are in-absentia nevertheless their personalities are still writ large. These are screen grabs of a moment in a selection of teenager’s lives – when their guard is down. As a result they are brutally honest portraits unlike the assumed avatar personas used for online games or the lurid grandstanding prevalent on social media sites.
The artist has entered a sacrosanct world off-limits to the teenagers’ parents and often their own peers too. The photos are a cross-section of each life showing dumbbells, discarded trainers, surfboards, underwear and hidden from view condoms. Earlier layers of a bedroom prepared by parents for a small infant are now plastered over with pop posters, concert tickets and costume jewellery. If you truly want a glimpse into my world they say, then have a gawk inside my bedroom. This is the real me. Ray Davies said to flick through someone’s record collection would make him weep as it meant exposure to the intimate personality of an individual. The artist is casting an anthropologist’s eye over the skeins of a child’s changing habits and tastes as they grow up. An accretion of memories that are not airbrushed out or erased for public consumption.
And what do we learn from these photos? Teenagers like teenagers before are still individualistic and have idols, are attracted to rebels and outsiders, and even read books!
Accompanying the photographs are printed pages of testimonials gathered from a larger collection of again, unnamed teenagers. These short proclamations are fiercely arresting and pithy encapsulations of young hope and despair. Based on a 20-question format devised by a psychologist they form intense mini verbal portraits. Nanigian was, not surprisingly, captivated by what she harvested and thinks she may continue the process as an on-going practice.
At the launch of the exhibition the artist spoke revealingly about a common thread that unites all her recent but varied practice. Everything she has engaged in has been a form of portraiture. We tend to envisage portraits in the form of static stuffy profiles of the people themselves. But even Gainsborough’s portraits for example had an unwitting testimony to them. What was quietly being elided to? See that folly in the distance? It means I am enlightened. See that large Palladian house? I am cultured and very wealthy. In contemporary idioms that would now entail views of accessories like yachts, racehorses or sports cars. But if you take the person out and concentrate on the residual we can often see more clearly.
Theresa Nanigian takes an oblique approach to her subject matter. There are no traditional notions of painting the individual. Instead portraits can be of a place depicted through landscape, absent figures or silhouettes. There can be a portrait of a section of society composed from personal testimonies or multiple brain scans. Or even of a catastrophic event like 9:11 weirdly illuminated by random and mundane statistical details to reveal intimate storylines.
It will be interesting to see what these teenagers make of their self-portraits in ten, twenty or thirty years time? Theresa Nanigian is a clever and studious assimilator of contemporary lives with an editor’s discreet insight into essential truths. She acts as a conduit to views of peoples lives and shows that portraiture is still a powerful tool.
Theresa Nanigian: not sorry
Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Ireland until 12th April.