Unnatural esoteric at the Galway Arts Centre presented over two floors suits the Georgian grandeur of the building with its references to the Victorian wunderkammer, the eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities, the precursor to the modern museum. The exhibition carries a narrative structure beginning with documentary-style photographs from The Franke Foundation in Halle, Germany, ranging to sculptural objects where Louise Manifold creates a series of vitrines displaying the curiosities of her own personal wunderkammer. Three video works occupy the stairwell and first floor. The exhibition develops from the documentary to the interpretative and the work gets progressively stronger and more assured as the viewer moves through the building.
Manifold’s work is characterised by a dark beauty, with subconscious or perhaps repressed psychic material sometimes seeping through into the imagery and objects she creates with skill and sensitivity. A hoard of disparate creatures are portrayed, dead and alive, in part or whole, all lycanthropic or possessing the ability to transform into animal.
In A 49 year old woman (digital video installation) an elegant though impotent woman believes she is a wolf (the true meaning of the term ‘lycanthrope’). In Saturn transforming Lycan (digital video piece) two male protagonists engage in a fervid wrestle, their churning shadows revealing the form of a wolf. The shadows of their action becomes literally an intimation, a vestige of their struggle, a sort of animal coupling. A beast with two backs.
Manifold presents insightful and emotional artworks addressing the psychiatric illness Clinical Lycanthrophy. She mythologises its manifestations in a number of cases documented on the gallery walls and in the video works. The Lycanthropic condition is expressed through languages of art; I like this – she suggests the commonly understood entrapment of a mental disability does not have to be limiting or restrictive. It can be creative and metamorphic, about becoming animal: transforming and possibly finding a liberating awareness of what it is to be human beyond the conventions of identity construction and codes of mental health in contemporary culture.
This show can also be read as a metaphor for our current Irish predicament. Maybe not what the artist intends, yet the ideas she plays with are prescient and resonant for our times. In The Tiger groom (digital video installation) a man feels he is “a tiger trapped in a human’s body, this belief persisted for 13 years," according to the sonorous voice over. After this time he acquiesces to the truth: he is only human in his fur-less nakedness, in his dearth of prowess and his lack of tail. Doesn’t this sound familiar … didn’t we all think we were ‘Tigers’ for about thirteen years? We too thought we were a powerful animal-nation identity, a nobel sovereign beast that could prevail against any social, economic or political odds. We were all proved wrong, we had no tail after all, we were no streak or ambush of tigers.
All Manifold’s characters harbour similar fantasies, of becoming some kind of animal, from tiger to gerbil and bird. The poetry and cultural irony of such desires enriches this exhibition and serves it with psychological depth. Though she presents her personages with symptoms that are the illustration of the disorder Lycantrophy, I would argue that this ‘illlness’ is normative and collective – we can see our entire culture came down with it recently.
The sculptural works carry references to Kiki Smith’s animal objects and Dorothy Cross in their scientifically observed juxtaposition of the bizarre with functional things from everyday life. In Manifold’s exhibition we encounter the exquisiteness of birds’ wings as bookmarks, a bejewelled coyote head as a mask to be worn over the human face in Coyote cap and magpie claws co-joined to a mechanical device reminiscent of a wind-up musical toy in Magpie music box. These sculptural images are heart-rendingly beautiful, but I worried about the provenance of these animal bodies. Alice Walker wrote “animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men." If these body parts were human remains, how differently would we approach this work?
Louise Manifold clearly holds these animal parts as objects in high esteem and treats them honourably and she sensitively deals with the complex issues of human psychological and psychic disorder.
Áine Phillips is an artist based in Clare.