Beyond Maps and Atlases

Bertien Van Manen unearths the spectral beauty of rural Ireland in a collection of photographs offering something new with every viewing

This exhibition, at Belfast Exposed, represents Dutch photographer Bertien Van Manen’s first body of work produced solely in Ireland. Named for Seamus Heaney’s 'A Herbal', it sees an artist’s attempt to fully immerse herself in her environment. She has crossed the country, staying with strangers, and burying herself into the landscape.

What she has unearthed, with a quick and poetic eye and extraordinary compositional skill, is a kind of 'Weird Old Ireland': a land of mists and ghosts, of encroaching nature, of sympathetic magic and folk horror.

One picture presents a glow-in-the-dark Jesus, of the type still seen at rural Irish roadsides as a kind of holy cat’s eye. He stands, palms raised, shapelessly luminescent under a car’s head-lights. He is anchored at an angle, leaning down into the road as though he were attempting to cadge a lift. Bottle-green grass is picked out in dense profusion by the camera’s eye. Behind is a blue smear of sea and looming mist.

Two middle-aged men are sat in a pub booth, though the benches curl like church pews. They hunch over the table, grinning, surprised by the camera. They are dressed identically: tucked-in striped shirts and jeans, and in front of them are the remains of a pair of fries and a pair of pints. And they both glow. They are leaking ectoplasm like incontinent mediums.

Another picture seems to show us the soul of the moon, pitted and scarred, rising from a moonlit tide. It is the image of a lunar out-of- body-experience: a ghostly white egg rolling in infinity of blackness. In another bare twigs, starkly lit by the shock of a camera’s flash, crack across the image like a shattered screen. Once again a raging blackened sea churns beneath.

Beyond Maps and Atlases

My favourite image is of an older woman in a buttoned up raincoat and headscarf. The photograph has been taken from a moving car – the light on the window bleeds down through the picture. The lady is in the process of throwing confetti, which, out of focus, appears as little apple-flesh white bites throughout the picture. There are chunks taken out of her chest and the stone wall behind her. She loses her right eye to it, a hazy, pale eye-patch, like something from a medical field kit. She is pitched forward, the frame of the car window leaning away from her, suggesting irresistible momentum. The picture is a blizzard of quiet dynamism, a wonderful single moment realised for perpetuity.

In another picture elbows and arms echo the photographic frame. Either freckled or hairy, they are both the blue white of a fish’s belly. In the background other figures can be glimpsed as a passing eye or a single fleeting nostril. We realise that this forest of bent limbs is part of a dance, large parts of the movement cropped away, leaving only the gentle rhythm echoing through the image.

Two figures walk across an empty, undulating beach at high tide, little pools of lilac water fill the top edge of the frame from left to right as though, like Mr. Palomar, you were reading a wave. A figure, dressed completely in white, like a baker’s boy with a dodgy sat-nav, strides determinedly towards the sea. Another figure, dressed in black and fresh, no doubt, from delivering a box of chocolates and cliff diving into the water, trudges inland, drenched, his head bowed.

This is not my favourite photograph here. It seems more self-conscious and studied. You can imagine Hipgnosis dressing a Pink Floyd sleeve with it. I should give Van Manen the benefit of the doubt, but it looks a little too perfect, too good to be true.

Beyond Maps and Atlases 2

There is a photograph of the corpse of a lamb. It’s lying on its side displaying an enormous hole in its chest and stomach so that you can see the unbroken rib-cage striping the wound. The animal’s head is surrounded by a halo of woollen tufts, lying on the grass. Its guts snake from its body, innards draped over one thigh. Its eyes are black and empty, more than dead. Absent.

Two women stare at the camera with fierce resolution. The elder of the pair carries a bowl full of empty eggshells and wears a pinny. The other, younger, angrier, has her fists plunged into her pockets. She offers nothing, not even eggshells, though she wears a bright woollen hat, reminiscent of an egg-cosy.

They stand against a dull sepia wall, decorated with a clock and a calendar and a light-dappled religious painting, possibly 'The Wedding at Cana'. There is so much going on in this picture that I stand staring, unable to move under the weight of its loaded symbolism, apparently stolen from the moment.

These are photographs you could come back to a dozen times and still find new, beautiful and terrible things within the frames. As the artist buries herself, like a tick, into the countryside she draws out its strange magic, its oddness, and its sudden, sometimes accidental beauty.

As Heaney’s poem says: 'Run your hand into, The ditch back growth, And you'd grope roots, Thick and thin. But roots of what?'

Beyond Maps and Atlases runs at Belfast Exposed until Saturday, March 19. For opening times and further information visit www.belfastexposed.org. The collection is also now available to purchase in hardback from Mack Books and other photography book outlets.