Mat Collishaw is an artist who was a central part of the YBA (Young British Artists) group that emerged mainly from Goldsmiths University, London in the early 1990s. This period produced some of the most successful and notorious British artists, such as Damian Hurst, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, and Chris Ofili. While the label was assigned to the artists in the 90s, their big public airing was in 1988, with the the show Freeze, organised by Hurst.
Collishaw is known to cause controversy himself. His work is often confrontational and accused of sensationalism, a characteristic the YBAs are known for. His ongoing themes of investigation are bound to cause some discomfort — Collishaw possesses a fascination with the dark sides of the human psyche. His work frequently explores desire, dark pleasures, violence, and mortality. Motifs and references to the Victorian era serve his purpose well. This was a time when the sciences became preoccupied with taxonomy, as was evident in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and in botany, for example. This urge to categorise and segment was reflected in the wider society. Social hierarchy was deeply stratified. The division between public and private became more pronounced, even layout of homes changed and became sliced up into many single-purpose, often gender specific rooms, instead of open spaces. What happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors, while the exterior was to remain prim and proper. In contrast to this outward show of morality was a proliferation of prostitution, child labour, and a preoccupation with death, as seen in complex mourning rituals and memento mori photographs. Collishaw exposes the contradictions embedded in human nature through the dualities so prominent during the Victorian time, as well as references to art history, in creating artworks that introduce contemporary technologies and deal with the darkness we suppress on a societal scale.
An exhibition of several of Mat Collishaw’s works is currently installed at Gary Tatintsian Gallery in Moscow. Titled Albion, after a work of his that produces an impressive variation of the Pepper’s Ghost effect, it includes another contraption popular in the Victorian times — the zoetrope. Albion (2017) is a gorgeous, slowly swaying laser-scanned portrait of the Major Oak purported to have sheltered Robin Hood. The tree is hundreds of years old, and kept upright by an array of metal supports. Albion is an awe-striking sight. It takes up considerable space in a long dark room, making the viewer feel as though we are privy to an apparition from a private séance. It is accompanied by a series of paintings of garden birds, Gasconades (2017).
In the next room, three large mirrors, encased in elaborate decorative frames, hang in the middle of the wall. It turns out that these are not only reflective surfaces. LCD screens are embedded in the frames, presenting contemporary iterations of the trompe l’oeil. Inside the outer mirrors, paintings of Saint Sebastian and Andromeda come to life, warping and writhing in slow loops of never-ending suffering. In the middle mirror we can see swirling smoke and a reflection of our own figure, left to ponder our own mortality.
The third room is devoted to a breathtaking zoetrope. Collishaw has created several variations of the zoetrope over the past few years, but this one is perhaps the most elaborate. All Things Fall (2014) presents a scene as devastating as it is addictive. A white sculptural arrangement that references the Biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents, a bout of infanticide ordered by Herod the Great as he feared for his throne. The structure looks painfully like a festive iced cake, invoking mixed emotions from the viewer. It begins to spin with an unexpected whoosh of air, making the experience more visceral. Then, after we are introduced to the motion, the room goes dark once more and strobing LEDs illuminate an animated scene of figures committing violent actions, inescapable sinful human behaviour looping through the ages, to the present time.
In all of these works, something is simultaneously obscured and seeping through the cracks. Shiny surfaces and romantic decoration seduce us to witness the more sinister elements of the work, as they come to reveal themselves after the initial aesthetic satisfaction. Duration is important here, and artfully drawn out of the work. It also prompts us to widen our scope of pondering to consider how these great forces operate in our daily lives. The show is on at Gary Tatintsian Gallery until 2 May. Take a closer look of the documentation of these works on Mat Collinshaw’s website.