Column | The Black River of Herself

Gwen Burlington discusses Patrick Hough’s recent film.

Patrick Hough, The Black River of Herself, 2021, 4K video, 5.1 Surround Sound, 26:43 mins; film still courtesy of the artist. Patrick Hough, The Black River of Herself, 2021, 4K video, 5.1 Surround Sound, 26:43 mins; film still courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in Dublin, a trip to the National Museum of Ireland was part and parcel of the art class annual school calendar. Ornate gold torcs from the Hill of Tara and dress fasteners from the Bronze Age populate the vitrines but the most captivating of discoveries were the eerily detailed bog bodies. Clonycavan Man, discovered in Ballivor, County Meath, has always stayed with me, mainly due to his distinctively preserved red ‘man-bun’ hairstyle, laced with Iron Age hair gel. Strangely intimate, as you peer up against his glass encasement, you can see the pores of his skin in his leathered remains. A portal to our history, his discovery is a cipher to a previous existence, about which we can only speculate. This is the focus of Patrick Hough’s film, The Black River of Herself (2021) – peatlands, discoveries, and allegories that speak to both a past and future.

In Hough’s film, a grumbling archaeologist excavates a bog body, found in the peatlands of an undisclosed rural location. Unearthed from a peat-harvester, it or she lies damaged, half exposed; but unlike the bog bodies that lie stiff in the National Museum, Hough brings her to life. An off-screen voice narrates her concerns, as she subtly quivers and laments her exposure: “The atmosphere […] tastes like a funeral.” The film moves from scenes of the excavation with light banter between the archaeologist and the bog body – “You look fresh” – to panning views of the peat-layered landscape, filled with philosophical musings on the state of the planet: “From here I’ve seen the glaciers retreat. These rapidly warming days with water weeds pushing on my palette…” The bog woman becomes a baleful warning of what is to come; an allegory for the planet: “I gave you one condition: pristine airlessness.” 

Striking footage of the Skellig Islands offsets sterile scenes of the bog woman in a CT scanner, being analysed in a laboratory. Colonies of gannets swoop and hover around Little Skellig as the sea sloshes and heaves dramatically around it. Daisy Hildyard’s script affords the film a lyric intensity as we hear the bog woman’s poetic lament of the climate’s demise, and the interconnected nature of the ecosystem: “We all inherit their ancestry.” The atmospheric soundtrack backgrounding this segment creates ominous, tension-building anticipation of a portentous event.

Named after a line in the Seamus Heaney poem, The Grauballe Man, the film channels the ‘psychic impetus’ the bog bodies held for the poet. As a primordial image, Hough employs the bog body like a totem, used to voice a collective unconscious, tapping into the belief that they were gateways to the spiritual world. The peatland, a character itself within the film, plays an important ecological role in the reversal of accelerating climate change, critical for preserving global biodiversity. The accidental exhumation of the bog body through peat-cutting releases harmful emissions of carbon. “We all bleed carbon these days” the bog woman forewarns. Hough conflates this ecological concern with the bog as a space of stratified history: “The bog floods my mind with strange relationships. People, weeds, microbial beings, primordial lifeforms swim through my thoughts.”

A warning corporealised, The Black River of Herself evocatively combines atavistic rituals with urgent concerns for our immediate future. Acting as a harbinger of ecological demise, the narrative must be read as a response to the reluctance of society to attune itself to the planet’s needs. In A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), Kathryn Yusoff breaks down preconceived notions of the division between humans and inorganic matter. Geology is “without subject (thing-like and inert), whereas biology is secured in the recognition of the organism (body-like and sentient)”. Instead, she chronicles “an inhuman instantiation that touches and ablates human and non-human flesh […] It rides through the bodies of 1,000 million cells: it bleeds through the open exposure of toxicity, suturing deadening accumulations through many a genealogy and geology.” Through this sentient bog body, Hough asks us to use our ancient ancestry to forge a symbiotic future.

Gwen Burlington is a writer based between Wexford and London. 

The Black River of Herself was recently screened as part of: aemi @ Cork International Film Festival, ‘In the Long Now’ (9 November); TULCA Festival of Visual Arts (18 November); and at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland (15 October 2021 – 9 January 2022).