Mat Collishaw’s approach to art is filled with respect for the past. Victorian and Baroque cultures in particular are being constantly reiterated in his oeuvre, with the artist seemingly spellbound by their dubious character. Filled with symbols of religion and disease, innocence and corruption, desire and crime, both periods constantly oscillate between excitement and disgust, and both use illusions to trick us into the worlds of beautiful abominations. Two current displays by Collishaw gather evidence of the artists’ fascination with darkness and manipulation of one’s perception, ‘Mat Collishaw’ at Walsall’s New Art Gallery and ‘In Camera’ at the Library of Birmingham.
Spread across two floors in the New Art Gallery is the largest survey of Collishaw’s work to date, a spectacle of the sacred and profane that bursts with allusions to art history. It also questions the viewer’s role in the history of imagery: Are we just the vulnerable victims or rather voyeuristic spectators of the media-dominated world? ‘Insecticides’ (2006), for example, is an ongoing project, in which Collishaw photographs squashed butterflies, magnified to magnificent proportions. Here, the camera behaves like a Victorian entomologist mercilessly dissecting the delicate, dismembered bodies of the insects to reveal beauty of a cosmic nature. Their crushed wings are transformed into a colourful powder that awes spectators, who end up staring at death in its unearthly presence. The same illusion appears when admiring works from ‘Venal Muse’ (2012), a series of sculptures shaped into exotic flowers that are ridden with venereal diseases. Springing out of the soil and spoilage that kept its seductive shine, we end up examining these ‘flowers of evil’ that are reminiscent of rotting sexual organs. ‘Catching Fairies’ (1996) on the other hand is a series of photographs that explore the Victorian interest in the ephemeral. Here, Collishaw depicts himself trying to capture the fairies of the title - an idyllic scene we desperately want to believe in.
The intelligence of Collishaw’s work is informed by its constant play with the spectator and allusions to the masters of fine arts. He breathes life into Albrecht Dϋrer’s depiction of turf by animating it with a gentle breeze and changing the original title into ‘Whispering Weeds’ (2011), onomatopoeia that is an illusion in itself. He adds a new dimension to George de la Tour’s Madonna-like depictions of women, and in ‘Last Meal on Death Row, Texas’ (2011) creates a series of harrowing photographs that borrow from the aesthetics of 17th century Dutch still lives and draw on the theme of the death penalty. Placed in the chapel-like gallery, these conversations with classical artists have a focal point and my personal favourite, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (2010), is as ecclesiastical as it is erotic. Here, three surveillance mirrors flanked by wooden frames play a video of a pole dancer in slow motion. Hung on a red wall, this triptych is accompanied by intense music and becomes a gruesome display of a vulnerable body that we devour with our greedy eyes. Alluding to the history of sexual exploitation within the thick walls of the church, the spectacle is not for our eyes only. Others are watching too. The exclusivity is just another illusion.
On the second floor of the gallery is Collishaw’s latest zoetrope ‘All Things Fall’ (2014). Combining a biblical theme (the Massacre of the Innocents) with a Baroque design and a Victorian mechanism, this 3D sculpture rotates in frenzy and seduces us with its illusion of reality. Everything here is timed precisely and aimed at a single purpose: to expose the mechanisms of the trickery and then, to trap the spectator in his or her own desires.
Rapid movements, restricted vision and flashing ephemera are the stimuli that Collishaw deliberately engages to attack and fool his audience. ‘In Camera’ at the Library of Birmingham is a small show but it is as poignant and hypnotising as the exhibition at the New Gallery. Again, we descend into darkness as soon as we open the gallery doors. But it is not an atmospheric light of the baroque that emphasises the shadows. It is a darkness of death with no light. It is a room of sins with no contrition. Twelve negatives from the 1930s and 1940s taken at the crime scenes are placed in the transparent boxes that are dispersed around the pitch-black room. The images, found by the artist in the Library’s archives remind us of some photographic off cuts; pictures that say nothing at all. But it is precisely their uncanny silence and emptiness that makes them so disconcerting. One by one, they are randomly lit up by a flash bulb. Like disorientated moths we instantly turn towards the phosphorescent image but it transforms into blackness soon after. Experiencing ‘In Camera’ is like reliving a nightmare, and by implementing digital technology alongside antique mediums, Collishaw, the Caravaggio for our times, once more plays with the eye and enhances the impression of a ghost inhabiting the machine; a voice from the past hidden behind the photograph.