When is a forest, not a forest? Theresa Nanigian’s ‘Two Souls in One Breast’ exhibition

Sometimes I still am taken surprise by the power of art. Quite a few of you will know that I work quite intensively on a 5 county programme supporting artists of all stripes, www.artlinks.ie – it doesn’t leave much time to consider my own practice, let alone time to experience the work of others. I also have to admit, the area of my own artistic interest, art & ecology, has not been the focus of serious attention for many other visual artists (although, recently there is a surge of development, led in no small way by the excellent RSA Art & Ecology programme in London but I think more so by the inescapable, growing realisation that we need a healthy environment  to ensure our economies and every living thing’s survival).

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 by an artist whose work I’ve known about for some time.  I slipped over for a few minutes; the exhibition area was about to close, so it was quiet and the most delicious time of all to spend time with artworks. Although I had seen the invitation card (it was  a beautiful photographed forest scene) and even had seen the artist talk about how she had approached this commission (which she had generously shared with other artists on the ArtLinks.ie 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.

Not having time to read the details of the catalogue, and with only a few minutes to absorb the work, I concentrated on a scanning the whole exhibition first, but I was soon stopped short by a beautifully presented (all the images were diamond mounted), but shocking unsettling photographic image of a man sitting in the foreground of a clear-felled hillside (isn’t the best art, the most unsettling?). As you can imagine, interested in permanent ecological and economically sustainable forestry in my own work, I felt this one image sucessfullycaptures all the sublime horror of the battle-field, that is clear-felling.

Crone Forest

Now,  as I knew that the artist, US born Theresa Nanigian, wasn’t coming from my own forest/ecological concerns, I later asked her about this particular piece. To her, 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 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 the image of the young girl walking ‘blind’ in a large forest but perhaps the other most striking work is the 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’ – property ‘development’. The currency and clarity of many of these images make this an important exhibition in its own right and I was delighted to hear that an edition of these works will be housed by the commissioner, Wicklow Co. Council, in one of its public buildings.

Barley Field by Theresa Nanigian, 2009

There is a lot more to this exhibition however;  there is a second major and separate part to Theresa’s project. She spent a long time in this rural part of Ireland, which is close enough to a city and interviewed the local community about what it was like to live there. This part of the exhibition is included in the beautifully yet understated accompanying catalogue. Again, Theresa, well known in her previous work for capturing lists of the endless streams of information that we are bombarded by in contemporary life, presented a striking visual means to present the voices of the inhabitants of this somehow ‘typically’ modern Irish place. She did this by re-inventing 18thC style silhouettes of those interviewed, with a line of text of their comments underneath. How potent to use this personal, but intriguingly anonymous means of presenting viewpoints in this age where we are visually saturated by film interviews. This is, I think a great development in this artist’s work and one that made me question my own artistic strategies when presenting ‘other voices’ in an artwork.

So there were in fact two very different parts of the exhibition; the landscape photography and the study on an Irish community in its environment. I don’t know if it was intentional, but the two separate parts also 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.


PS I’d love to think that Crone Forest will be an image, in the not too distant future of a more sustainable Ireland, that will be looked on in astonishment of a time when most thought this was an Irish forest!

This exhibition was recently at The Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Ireland. The exhibition travels to the West Cork Arts centre for 13th June until 18th July,  2009. If you are into photography, Public Art commissions (this unique Public Art commission was generously supported by Wicklow Co Council), or the study of place, don’t miss this exhibition!

See more of Theresa’s work or order the catalogue at www.theresananigian.com

3 thoughts on “When is a forest, not a forest? Theresa Nanigian’s ‘Two Souls in One Breast’ exhibition

  1. Cathy, This is a powerful post of sounds like a really great exhibition. It’s obvious to me reading it that herein lies your element. – Art & Ecology. Your writing style is so flowing and easy and natural and the work is so beautifully described. The image of the small man in the foreground with all that devastation behind makes something that we in Ireland take for granted as being ‘normal’ seem all at once so desolate. Really great work.


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