Looks Like Teen Spirit

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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.

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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!

IMG_1974Accompanying 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.

IMG_1978It 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.

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Fanfare for the common man.

Fergal McCarthy at the Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Aug 2013.

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The first time I encountered a tent pitched in the middle of an art gallery it belonged to Tracey Emin. She wasn’t home at the time. But she had infamously stitched the names of all the partners she had ever slept with into the inner fabric of the canvas for all to read. It was a pre-Facebook era splurge of public self-flagellation and a deliberately provocative gesture. Along with her unmade bed installation it garnered her instant notoriety as a bête noir of those brash Brit artists that Charles Saatchi unleashed on the art public in the early 1990’s.

The artist Fergal McCarthy recently installed himself in a tent in the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda. In contrast to Tracey Emin he was present throughout the duration but there was no embroidering or cataloguing of names by this artist. Instead by actually living and working for four days in the gallery itself he was attempting dissolution of the parameters and strictures of the traditional exhibition space and what one typically expects to encounter therein.

But what is it with artists wanting to live in art galleries? It’s nothing new of course. Ever since the minimalist white cube became the normative exhibition space artists have been trying to break that restrictive enclosure. McCarthy’s sojourn is not the first time an artist has decided to vacate their studio and install themselves in a very public space. Becoming artist-in-residence in a very literal sense so to speak. In 1974 the German artist Joseph Beuys spent several days in a gallery in New York with just a blanket, a flash lamp, a cane and a live coyote for company. And in perhaps the ultimate affront to gallery decorum in October 2011 Marni Kotak gave birth to her son as a live performance in a gallery in Brooklyn.

All were attempts to revoke the position of the artist as social outsider – a perception that has evolved over several centuries. Previously the artist was a craftsman employed by the community – not a remote specialist.

Fergal McCarthy’s ‘Welcome to Drogheda’ was an attempt to re-integrate the artist with the public and the community.  McCarthy is known for his arresting approach in encouraging people to assess the damage done to the fabric of our built environment during the last decade of boom and bust. His projects are usually set in-absentia of a formal gallery space and instead occur in the real world. With ‘Liffeytown’ in 2010 he floated oversized mock red and green illuminated Monopoly style houses in the river Liffey. Then with ‘No Man’s Land’ in 2011 he spent a week living on a tiny fake desert island marooned in the river opposite the empty shell of the intended new headquarters of the bankrupt Anglo Irish Bank.

For his Drogheda project McCarthy took as his jumping-off point an 18th Century painting of the town by Gabrielle Ricciardelli that is part of the Highlanes Collection. “I was inspired to seek out the same level of beauty that Ricciardelli portrayed,” said McCarthy, but from a contemporary viewpoint. The aim was a dialogue between the outsider’s fresh eye and the inherent knowledge of town residents resulting hopefully in a new perspective for everyone.

To facilitate this dialogue the artist as provocative outsider had created a mini palimpsest to the town’s identity. This highlighted Drogheda’s histories, local oddities and topography. Everything from fish and chip shops to art centres and local tyre fitters. A pre-ordained cultural ramble in the company of the artist led to scheduled meetings with butchers, bakers, publicans, shoemakers and tattoo artists. These encounters helped form a disparate and random array of connections and insights. The artist was thus a network facilitator, a guide. Interwoven with his encampment period in the Highlanes Gallery were talks and debates. These ranged from the best means for sustainable local tourism to how best to develop cultural audiences in non-metropolitan areas competing with a crowded art and media blizzard emanating from the big urban centres.

This al-fresco, formless and freewheeling engagement with the surrounding town felt improvisatory but equally genuinely participatory and collaborative. This resulted in an accumulation of knowledge of place through other people. The artist had become the conduit for exchange, or in McCarthy’s case literally a pied piper through the urban landscape of a town and its denizens allowing for re-engagement and insight with surroundings past and present. Leading the public on a merry dance across town, or in the formal language of art theory, an action piece or happening, is again nothing new. One evening in September 1963 the artist Wolf Mostel conveyed a group of spectators around the city of Wuppertal on a bus. Various events and activities were encountered. Different sites were visited including a car wash and a factory. The evening climaxed with the spectacle of a locomotive travelling at 130kmh crashing into a stationary Mercedes car parked across the path of the oncoming train. The destructive symbolism for a post-war German audience was clear by the end of the evening’s proceedings. Summation of a society can arguably be even more direct and detailed. Look for example at Pieter Breughel’s painting of ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’. Its myriad mini-narratives, caricatures and scenes encapsulate an entire village and its inhabitants in one canvas.

Perhaps McCarthy believes that his actions like those of Beuys before him could affect the world around him. The random encounter with people is at the heart of much of his work such as in his ‘Swimmer’ project recreating the journey undertaken by Burt Lancaster in the movie of the same name.

In the Highlanes project each day was bookended by McCarthy playing a specially commissioned musical anthem for Drogheda. The artist on solo trumpet performed this at both dawn and dusk from the roof of a car park in the local shopping mall. A wake up call perhaps, an elegy or a fanfare for the common man. All delivered in tuxedo – itself a signifier of an event, a performance or a bit of a do. The image of solo trumpeter evoked a defiant, indeed exuberant image of a man standing on the edge of a roof blowing for all he’s worth. The artist has thus metaphorically and materially left both his tent and gallery behind and become an urban purveyor for re-discovery rather than the exhibition simply being the end destination in itself. A gallery space of no boundaries is indeed achieved.

The Highlanes Gallery – http://www.highlanes.ie/

Fergal McCarthy – http://fergalmccarthy.blogspot.ie/

The Swimmer’ – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Swimmer_(film)

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