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Michael Birt

Sound and Vision

The Contemporary art world being what it is, the mythology of the DIY Freeze exhibition in 1988 is so enduring it’s as of yesterday. Maybe it was Arlo Guthrie who said ‘to become a force, first become a movement’, but it is a notion artists have always embraced with enthusiasm.

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: (c) the artist

The Young British Artist tag captured the imagination of a moribund art world on the verge of a radical change (the Big Bang – Big Bucks deregulation of London’s financial markets in 1986). Even negative press coverage (and there was enough) gave the oxygen of publicity to that random band of youthful artists(1) and to a single art school: Goldsmiths.

An early supporter, Charles Saatchi, is recorded as claiming it was the YBA’s attitude more than anything that attracted his interest. Certainly they were not averse to shock tactics to grab attention in those far-off days and as the YBA culture morphed into art-as-rock'n'roll commercialism, it created its own Top of the Pops and ‘super-star’ personalities – whilst others disappeared without trace, unable to turn a Freeze credential into gold. Yet one Freeze participant, who joined the clamour to shock and be noticed, subsequently retired to his studio and for over 20 years has created a body of provocative, inventive, ingenious and spiritual works that are now set to reveal him as the true dominant and authentically major talent of that gilded generation. That artist is Mat Collishaw.

Collishaw laughs ruefully. ‘Those who can’t get access to Tracey [Emin] and Damien [Hirst] end up with me’, he says on his experience of being interviewed in the past. If this situation ever existed, it will be forever extinguished when Collishaw reveals new works in an important show at Blain Southern’s outstanding new space in Hanover Square in February.(2)

Mat Collishaw was born in Nottingham in 1966. ‘The UK gun capital and the highest rate of axe murders in Europe,’ he says with a smile, ‘but good things did come out of the city: Paul Smith, DH Lawrence... and the Midland Group.’(3) It was the Midland Group that redirected Collishaw away from football, the army and pop music and grabbed his attention with an early exhibition by Robert Mapplethorpe (‘out there stuff that gave me a buzz’).

Reviews of Collishaw’s early days always refer to the fact his parents were practising Christadelphians, and sinister overtones are put on this. In fact, it is no more than a form of extreme Protestantism, although: ‘...you had to toe the line. It is insular and they do tend to intermarry, outsiders are seen as being of the world,’ Collishaw remembers, ‘... it may have coloured my outlook but it is in no sense a straitjacket on anything. That said, my moral position on things might well have come from them. We were working class and I went to an ordinary school – although further education is not encouraged.’

Collishaw deliberately chose Goldsmiths and arrived to find a haven of like-minded students. People he regarded as ‘bright kids who had learned nothing at school – uneducated like me’. He has also noted that ‘the teachers there were more cerebral... they were out there showing in galleries around the world, like Michael Craig-Martin and Richard Wentworth, Mark Wallinger and John Thompson’. In his second year he joined in the preparations for a self-staged exhibition to be called Freeze. ‘Damien, Angus Fairhurst and me were second year, Sarah Lucas had just left; Gary Hume and Fiona Rae were at the end of their third year,’ Collishaw recollects. His own contribution was taken directly from Austin Gresham’s illustrated handbook of forensic pathology, a close up of a deep scalp wound recreated in a series of illuminated panels.

‘It was an ambiguous image and easy to lose sight of what it actually was – it resembled other things [some opined it indicated a vagina]. Images like this – or pornography – you just had to engage with. I was looking for something that would pierce the veneer I identified in most painting and sculpture of that time. I wanted to soil the gallery as opposed to embrace people; it was really not my intention to shock.’

It was an irony that this now iconic piece, relatively expensive to make and unsold, was left to rot outside the venue. A later version (Bullet Hole) is now in the collection of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Australia.

In 1997, Mat enacted a conceptual piece – centred on Diego Velasquez’ famous work in the Prado, Las Meninas (1656) – called Blind Date. Filmed as he journeyed to Spain blindfolded, he psyched himself up to meet the masterpiece of Spain’s Golden Age in the flesh, meditating on ‘what you actually confront when you meet an incredibly famous painting against what you are programmed to feel – and I wanted to ratchet that up – I wanted to explore the Stendhal syndrome’.(4) In a way Blind Date was typical of all Collishaw’s art – a seemingly simple premise with a deeper, intellectual basis provoking further contemplation.

In the event, the experience was ‘...awful – without the visuals it is all a din – a cacophony. Madrid with its marble tabletops, crashing crockery – I actually had to stumble out of the restaurant we went to. There was absolutely no cheating, we stayed overnight so I was blind for 24hrs. It was exhausting and depressing. [He removed the mask only when in front of Las Meninas.] Ironically the painting was not as impressive as I thought it would be. It is not a visceral painting – it’s a cool and conceptual construct.’

Another work, whilst seemingly simple in its application, disguised a similar intellectual rigour and insistence that emotion and passions be engaged. This was Asylum. A ‘raft of refugees filmed on the Kent coast’ became an audio/video projection within a water-filled buoy, reminiscent of that nautical favourite, the ship-in-a-bottle, simultaneously referencing the Raft of the Medusa (Géricault) and the notion of ‘lost souls’. A raw soundtrack of wind and waves makes an effective statement of hopelessness and desolation.

Collishaw revisited this thread of ‘individuals whose dignity and identity have been taken’ in a highly sensitive creation for the Freud Museum in 2009. Women under the Influence was a quietly beautiful piece reconstituting portraits of anonymous 19th century Parisian women, patients who had been photographed to illustrate the recently formulated ideas about ‘hysteria’. Like the so-called capture of ectoplasm in spiritualist photographs of the day, anomalies in the photographic process were used to illustrate all sorts of bogus theories on the ‘essence’ of hysterical and mental aberration. Collishaw, convinced these unfortunates were drugged and bullied into participating, reclaims their dignity and soulfulness in a video work incorporating smoke and mirror effects, and the magical appearance and disappearance of the faces of these long forgotten women.

The Freud Gallery experience was particularly poignant for Collishaw. He has a virulent antipathy to psychotherapy following a fractious time with the mother of his son, Alex, who insisted the boy see a therapist because of the imaginary damage done by their break-up. The ‘happy little boy’ hated it and Collishaw (who insists that, contrary to published reports, he has never visited a shrink) has not forgiven those whom he regards as overpriced lifestyle Nazis.

A consistent factor in Mat Collishaw’s work has to be his focus on craftsmanship, an attention to detail in each piece that has evolved into a highly complex and precise method of working. His fascination with the zoetrope(5) is not unexpected. This simple optical device, which creates magical effects and tricks the mind and the eye, was popular in the Victorian era, a period that chimes with Collishaw’s creative imagination. In his hands, the zoetrope has been reinvented in 3D and taken to sublime levels. Incorporating computer technology ‘with an eccentric Ukrainian technician’, Collishaw makes complex, revolving, multi-plane works based on the concept of the zoetrope.

‘I invent a character on computer – then animate him so that each slight increment of movement realised is 100% accurate, so when rotating you get a smooth optical transition. A small piece takes about six months and costs around £25,000 to fabricate. It got easier as we went along and made less mistakes, but certainly not cheaper.’

Animated 3D carousel pieces like Throbbing Gristle (2008) and Garden of Un-Earthly Delights (2009) with their fairytale figurines and dark, sinister undertones (reminiscent of moralising Victorian children’s books or Richard Dadd paintings) are both exciting and emotional to watch – and Collishaw has attracted serious attention with them.

In 2010 the prestigious V&A asked him to produce a temporary piece (Magic Lantern) for the Winter season. His response was to create the effect of a lantern in the cupola attracting butterflies (beauty) to the beacon of light (learning) that is the essence of the museum. Likewise, in 2012 the Rambert Dance Company commissioned a backdrop to a Sadler’s Wells production, Labyrinth of Love. Choreography by Marguerite Donlon and scored by American composer Michael Daugherty, it was based on a series of love poems across the ages.

‘Why did I get involved in this? I don’t know! I felt it was important not to steal the show, to be interesting but not too interesting. I created a majestic video to respond to the poems. However, the composer didn’t produce the insightful music I expected but a 42nd Street sort of razzmatazz – it was very tricky to make work. It was not really enjoyable but my visuals got applauded.

‘Maybe it is a mistake straying into other areas like fashion and ballet. But I go into it to learn something. I’m interested in visual experience. Things should have a physicality and should transcend that physicality. That thing of being a church-like experience, not as in communing with something divine, but where you reflect, as you do in a church. It might be a self delusion but where you go through a portal into another place for a few moments. And a gallery can provide that...’

Mat Collishaw currently lives and works in a former pub not far from Goldsmiths College with his girlfriend and fellow artist, Polly Morgan. A recent brush with serious illness has moderated his behaviour but not his affection for the dark side. And he has made a return to ideas in painting. A recent show of ‘C’ Prints at Other Criteria recreates the last meals requested by Death Row inmates as soulful still life images in the Dutch Old Masters tradition. He is also contemplating a move to the country with Polly, who rather fancies a taste of rural life.

Collishaw is destined to have the art world at his feet and it could not be more well deserved. And Tracey Emin will no doubt shortly be being introduced as ‘Mat Collishaw’s ex-girlfriend...’

State is indebted to Charlotte Sluter and Purple PR for assistance in realising this feature.


1) Freeze exhibition, July 1988: Steven Adamson; Angela Bulloch; Mat Collishaw; Ian Davenport; Angus Fairhurst; Anya Gallaccio; Damien Hirst; Gary Hume; Michael Landy; Abigail Lane; Sarah Lucas; Lala Meredith-Vula; Richard Patterson; Simon Patterson; Stephen Park; and Fiona Rae

2) This is Not an Exit 14 February – 30 March 2013

3) The Midland Group was started by Evelyn Gibbs and others in 1943 – occupied various premises in the centre of Nottingham then settled at East Circus Street in 1961

4) A psychosomatic disorder that causes confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art that is particularly beautiful.

5) A zoetrope is a device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static pictures. The earliest known zoetrope was created in China around 180 AD by the inventor Ting Huan.

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