The management consultant who took her own advice and made the move into art

The teenagers were not in their rooms but their personalities were fully in evidence. “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. Originally from Boston, she obtained a BSc at Babson College Massachusetts, an MBA at Columbia and then worked in management consultancy. 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. That preoccupation began with a work for a previous show, Not Sorry at the Drogheda gallery in 2014. The set-up might appear haphazard but has an anarchic order. 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. The vendors operate on plots opposite the conventional shopfronts. “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. “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. A different strand of work feeds into each but there is an underlying concern with wellbeing. Gradually she became reconciled to this. They are dealing with stuff in their lives. “What struck me was that it was such a positive, joyful occasion. 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. It was a slippery slope: now she’s in the final year of a degree course in psychology at UCD. “At that stage of your life,” as Nanigian sees it, “you are usually preoccupied with earning a living. Each line begins with ‘I am .. Isolated against black backgrounds, impeccably costumed and poised, they are tea dance royalty, utterly committed to what they are doing. And the vendors on Venice Beach are an extreme example of that”. Interlopers would not be tolerated. The show will include a soundscape based on recordings made on the spot, plus samples of what the vendors sell and brief personal details. “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. It consisted of a series of detailed, almost forensic photographs of teenagers’ bedrooms. 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. Individually, they have had problems, you usually find. 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. 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. Her sister was visiting from the US and she was showing her around London when, she says, “I happened to stumble on it”. 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. 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. It you got a space, it was yours. People made a modest but adequate living. “For teenagers – and I had two at the time – their bedrooms are their personal spaces. She went back to the tea dance repeatedly and eventually persuaded the organisers and dancers to allow her to photograph them. The people in Trying to Behave are in the later stages of their lives. ‘Trying to Behave’ at The LAB, Foley St, Dublin, Until June 4th, thelab.ie “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”. .’ and you go on from there, 20 times.”

She has compiled responses from every group she’s come into contact with. 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. “Many of them sleep on the beach. 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. “Rosalie and Robert”, tea dancers, by Theresa Nanigian

Wellbeing
From that she began to think of tracing that idea of wellbeing across the lifespan: teenagers, middle years and later years. As she notes, the results can be bland or startling, but they do usually give you a picture of an individual. As Nanigian puts it, it’s not just a pastime, it’s a passion.