The curious case of the woman who cried wolf

VISUAL ART: MENTION lycanthropy and it’s more than likely people will think of werewolves

VISUAL ART:MENTION lycanthropy and it's more than likely people will think of werewolves. A lycanthrope is a human being who shape-shifts into a predatory, wolf-like creature, a transformation triggered, according to mythological convention, by the light of the full moon. Writers have warmed to the theme, but what really gave it teeth, so to speak, was the advent of cinema. The history of popular cinema is liberally sprinkled with stories of werewolves, including, to take one local example, Neil Jordan's dazzling screen version of Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves.

The late Warren Zevon name-checked Lon Cheney Jr as the Wolf Man in the song he co-wrote in the late 1970s, The Werewolves of London. Though prophetically he seemed to have a different kind of predator in mind – the financial kind – with the lyric: "I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's/ And his hair was perfect". A species of werewolf does pop up in Louise Manifold's exhibition at the Galway Arts Centre, Unnatural Esoteric– a woman who is convinced that she is metamorphosing into a wolf.

But Manifold has more than werewolves in her sights when she takes on lycanthropy, as is itemised in one part of her show, Table 2 Summary of Lycanthropy, reproduced from a 1988 paper in the Journal of Psychological Medicine.The authors set out to show that although lycanthropy might be associated with pre-electrical antiquity, it was very much in evidence late in the 20th century, even if relatively rare.

They and Manifold, we are told, have in mind what is termed clinical lycanthropy. That is, the conviction that one is, or is turning into, an animal, not necessarily though possibly a wolf. In fact in the cases listed, a wolf is relatively exotic when set against the more common cat and, rather touchingly in one instance, a gerbil.


The animal experiences detailed were usually temporary, and the clinical view is often that they were linked to episodes of psychosis.

There is some evidence, from observed disturbances in brain activity, that someone afflicted might actually see the extreme body dismorphism they describe just as surely as they might normally see the hand in front of their face.

In Manifold's video installation A 49 year old Womanshe addresses the case history of a woman who finds the daily pattern of her life progressively disrupted by her conviction that she is becoming possessed by the spirit of some other, devilish, creature.

She eventually realises that the creature is a wolf. She is drawn to graveyards and wild places, she want to head off into the night.

Manifold’s treatment of this material is stylised and restrained.

There are three projections. Footage of the woman occupies the central screen and it is flanked by two static views of woodland by night. The woman's imagined transformation remains firmly in her imagination – no fancy computer simulated metamorphosis here, which is wise. It is as if she is in a trance. A voice-over narration tells us what she is going through, with just a couple of subtle, ambiguous visual hints provided. A mirror in the background becomes the boundary between the everyday and the other world, as in Jean Cocteau's film Orphée.

It’s an atmospheric and effective piece, though it does distinctly echo the work of Susan MacWilliam, whose installations delve into the history of psychic phenomena, the uncanny and the paranormal (she represented Northern Ireland at the Venice Biennale last year, and much of the work shown there, which is well worth seeing, is currently on view at the Farmleigh Gallery and the NCAD Gallery in Thomas St).

Manifold’s work has the same air of quasi-scientific, controlled experimentation about it, and a comparably retrospective quality.

Unnatural Esotericgrew out of a residency at the Francke Foundation in Halle, Germany, during which she photographed some of the exhibits in one "of the oldest remaining intact Wunderkammer museums", or cabinet of curiosities. Cabinets of curiosities were the precursors of many of today's museums and archives. They were collections of all manner of objects, ranging promiscuously across different disciplines, mixing the man-made and the natural, the geological and the archaeological – which is what appeals to Manifold about them. Nothing is fixed.

Her show is a cabinet of curiosities in itself. She photographed items from the Wunderkammer: animal and fossil specimens preserved in jars or just sitting there on shelves in the open. Then she devised some beautifully made cabinets of her own, including bird-wing bookmarks, a magpie music box, a Victorian Reptile. Another video, in which we see a tiger warily lapping water from a jungle pool, recounts in voice- over the story of a man who was convinced that he was a tiger and that his soul-mate was a tigress in the local zoo – one romance that was fated to end badly.

A few years ago, Manifold made a terrific piece, Legend, which also explored museological display and classification. Three individuals discussed the same object from a museum collection, each coming to it from a distinctly different point of view, that of a psychic, a historian and a professional storyteller. Unnatural Esotericis also concerned with encouraging us to free up our imagination when faced with something unfamiliar. Information is increasingly categorised and corralled, but, she implies, there's no reason why we can't rediscover the magic of the Wunderkammer.

Unnatural Esoteric, Galway Arts Centre, 47 Dominick St Until April 14th

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times