Bottle Bird (Wunderkammer Series) Louise Manifold: Bottle Bird (Wunderkammer Series), photograph, 2010, image courtesy the artist.

Unnatural Esoteric at the Galway Arts Centre, presented over two floors, suits the Georgian architecture of the building. It references the Victorian wunderkammer, the 18th Century cabinet of curiosities, the precursor to the modern museum. The exhibition has a narrative structure, developing from the documentary to the interpretative.

On the ground floor this narrative begins with documentary-style photographs from The Franke Foundation in Halle, Germany. This moves to sculptural objects, which sit in a series of vitrines, displaying the curiosities of Louise Manifold’s own personal wunderkammer. Three video works occupy the stairwell and first floor.

In A 49 year old Woman, a digital video installation, an elegant though impotent woman believes she is a wolf (the true meaning of the term ‘lycanthrope’). In the video piece, Saturn Transforming Lycan, two male protagonists engage in a fervid wrestle; their churning shadows reveal the form of a wolf. The shadows of their action become literally an intimation, a vestige of their struggle – a beast with two backs.

rookLouise Manifold: Rook trap, taxidermy, gold leaf,metal, glass, light, 2010, image courtesy the artist.

All Manifold’s characters harbour similar fantasies – of becoming some kind of animal – from tiger to gerbil to bird. The poetry and cultural irony of such desires enrich the exhibition and serves this with psychological depth. Though she presents her personages with symptoms that are the illustration of the disorder lycantrophy, a psychiatric illness, I would argue that this ‘illness’ is normative and collective.

In one digital video, The Tiger Groom, 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: that he is human.

Manifold addresses clinical lycanthropy through insightful and emotional art works. She suggests that the commonly understood entrapment of a mental disability does not have to be limiting or restrictive. It can be creative and metamorphic; 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.

The tiger groom, digital video installation Louise Manifold: The Tiger Groom, digital video installation, 2010, image courtesy the artist.

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 book marks, a bejeweled coyote head as as mask to be worn over the human face in Coyote Cap and magpie claws co-joined to a mechanical device reminiscent of a windup 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?

Manifold holds these animal parts as objects in high esteem and treats them sensitively in dealing with the complex issues of human psychological and psychic disorder. Her work has a dark beauty; with perhaps repressed psychic material which seems to seep through into the imagery and objects she creates.

Áine Phillips is a multi-media performance artist and writer.