Super Vivere

The secret to a long life is to dance a lot and drink some vodka, according to the nonagenarians in Susie Rea's exhibition

‘I would advise you to dance a lot. It’s really good for you!’ read the words of Pauline, from Northern Ireland. Pauline is 95 years old and one of the subjects in the photography exhibition Super Vivere by local artist, Susie Rea. The exhibition is currently showing at the Naughton Gallery in Belfast.

In the photograph of her, Pauline sits erect on a straight-backed chair placed in front of a single bed covered in a patchwork quilt. Two crucifixes hang on the cream walls of the room. I couldn’t decide whether the shot was taken in a house or a nursing home. It’s hard to imagine Pauline doing much dancing these days. Although you never know, she must be doing something right to have lived so long.

Super Vivere (loosely translated from Latin as ‘Life in addition’) was created as a collaboration between the photographer and Dr Maeve Rea, of the Department of Geriatric Medicine at Queen’s University, and the EU funded 'Genetics of Healthy Ageing' (GEHA) Study – one of the largest genetic research projects ever undertaken on longevity in humans. What makes this work on older people unique is that all the participants photographed have a living sibling who has also reached or lived beyond the age of 90.

The portraits in the exhibition show a cross section of the sibling survivors that participated in the GEHA research from across Europe, specifically Finland, Poland, Italy and Northern Ireland.

The exhibition includes 21 photographic prints, as well as extracts from interviews with the sitters in both text and sound recordings. The photographs show the nonagenarians sitting – alone or in pairs – on chairs, on settees, on beds, in their front rooms, their kitchens, their bedrooms: some sit straight backed, staring impassively into the lens, others betray a glint of mischief in their eyes.

The rooms are decorated as so many of our elderly relatives homes are: family photographs are proudly displayed, paintings or prints hang on the walls. There is a sense of lives lived, and let’s not forget, these people have lived through the worst times of the 20th Century: one can only speculate about the sorrows they’ve endured.

In the text accompanying the photographs, the subjects talk about their lives. Bednarksa (92), from Poland, says this about her relationship with her sister, Janina (93): 'We have very little in common. I’m slimmer. Fortunately people always liked me – both old and young people... she is less compassionate than me – more courageous. She drinks vodka sometimes.' In the photograph of the pair, they sit on a settee, faces turned toward one another, teasing smiles playing on their lips. The love they share is obvious.

The most striking photograph in the exhibition is of 97-year-old Pelagia from Poland. Pelagia sits in a chair beside a dining table decorated with a lace table cloth. Her right hand clutches a walking stick, her left rests on her lap. She wears a simple dark blue dress over a lace-trimmed blouse. There is a harmony between her and the dining table: both seem sturdy, enduring. Light enters the picture from the left of frame. Pelagia faces the light and it could be a window, it could be eternity. It is a photograph of sublime dignity.

I went to this exhibition expecting to be confronted with representations of decrepitude and decay. What I experienced was a celebration of life. I came away from the gallery determined to live mine for as long as I possibly can. I’ll take some tips from Janina and Pauline: I’ll drink vodka, sometimes. And dance. A lot.

Super Vivere is at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University, Belfast, BT7 1NN, from January 11 – February 27.