Theresa Nanigan: Two souls in one breast

Cathy Fitzgerald of reviews Theresa Nanigan’s touring exhibition:

A couple of weeks ago, after travelling a couple of hours to an all day meeting, and facing another couple of hours driving home, I was reminded that there was an exhibition next door of work by an artist whose work I’ve known about for some time.  The Mermaid Arts Centre, in Bray, Co. Dublin was about to close, so it was quiet and the most delicious time of all to spend time with artworks. Although I heard the artist talk about how she had approached this commission (a talk shared on the south east Irish Art resource programme ) I was still taken aback by the strength and clarity of the work; its  many layers of investigation — some of which I have grappled with myself.

I was soon stopped short by a beautifully presented but unsettling photographic image of a man sitting in the foreground of a clear-felled hillside (isn’t the best art, the most unsettling?). Interested in permanent ecological and economically sustainable forestry in my own work, I felt this one image sucessfully captures all the sublime horror of the battlefield that is clear-felling.

As I knew that the artist, US-born Theresa Nanigian, wasn’t coming from my own forest/ecological concerns, I asked her about this particular piece. She felt that this piece could be read as a metaphor for the break-down in religious belief in this country of Ireland, as the figure in the foreground was in black and holding a small book (I hadn’t noticed these details at first). This is clearly a way, and perhaps the way, most Irish audiences would read this work. But when I questioned Theresa about the location of the scene and found out the title and background of the work, I felt another thrill – the title of the work  is Crone Forest 2009 and she had been referred to this area by a Coillte forester as part of her year long project on what you might refer to as an in-depth, visual commentary on a study of “place”.

So here was a contemporary photographic image, clearly echoing the visual strategies of landscape artists working in the 18th century, portraying nature as “sublime” (where “nature” was painted as an all powerful force in the greater part of an image, “man”  figuring as a dwarfed element in the foreground, overwhelmed in his relationship to what in the 18thC he saw as the uncontrollable forces of nature) but also inadvertently drawing attention to what I feel is the major point of what I feel people don’t generally understand about forests in Ireland. There is something really lacking and scary when we cannot really “see” our own environment, and that we call a clear-fell site a forest! Yet it is not commented upon by either most foresters (and I am not making attack against the semi-state Irish forestry organisation Coillte) or most people in the surrounding community (as reflected in the other major part of Theresa’s project, where she interviewed local people about living in this area). What people generally know about forestry in Ireland is so very poor; what we have in the main is monoculture tree plantation crops. Yet, this lack of understanding is perhaps not surprising in a land that was deforested so long ago and that lacks a wider understanding of true sustainability in general. Today most people lack a real basic understanding of the important sustaining elements of forests in regards to biodiversity, waterways, climate and the resources that real forests have and do provide.

Amongst the other images, I also liked an image of the young girl walking “blind” in a large forest but perhaps the other most striking work is Barley Field 2009, an image of a man reminiscent of Caspar David Frederich’s figure in The Wanderer. Except in this instance, we see a typical Irish property developer figure, ear to his mobile phone caught up no doubt in Ireland’s all too recent story of “‘progress”.

There is a second major part to Theresa’s project. She spent a long time in this rural part of Ireland, close to a city, and interviewed the local community about what it was like to live there. Known in her previous work for capturing the endless streams of information that we are bombarded by in contemporary life, Theresa presented these voices by re-inventing 18thC style silhouettes of those interviewed, with text of their comments underneath. How potent to use this personal, but intriguingly anonymous means of presenting viewpoints in this visually saturated age.

The parts seemed to stress the extent of which modern communities are disconnected from the natural environment that surrounds and supports them. Ultimately, the study and understanding of “ecology!”, as its very root, is the study of “home/place” and this artist’s study offers a considered and compelling visual study of the ecology of modern Ireland.

The exhibition, supported by Wicklow Co Council  travels to the West Cork Arts Centre for July 12 – July 18 2009.

See more of Theresa’s work at

Cathy Fitzgerald worked in agricultural science research for ten years in New Zealand before obtaining an MA in Fine Art (New Media) in Ireland. Her online Art& Ecology notebook documents a “Slow Art” local project taking place in her small two-acre spruce plantation in Ireland — a small community action in response to climate change. It’s an ongoing conversation between herself, sustainable foresters, her local community and beyond, detailing an example of how to turn a small monoculture spruce plantation into an ecologically& economically sustainable real forest.

Go to RSA Arts & Ecology

One thought on “Theresa Nanigan: Two souls in one breast

  1. Mark Hogan says:

    Two souls in one breast, i just came across the book today and i find it very interesting . However i do think when a book is being published it should be proofed and be accurate in detail. For example the photo titled “crone Forest” is in fact “Deerpark” and the trees titled “Birch Forest” are in fact Beech Trees, this beech stand is also in Deerpark, and all are in Glencree Forest. Deerpark is seperated from Crone by Bahana.

    Oh and the comment by Cathy Fitzgerald, well Bray is in the Garden County, Mmm yes Co Wicklow.
    Regards, Mark H.

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