Having made his breakthrough as a participant in Damien Hirst’s infamous Freeze exhibition in 1988, Mat Collishaw is a key figure in the so-called Young British Artists generation. Since then he has established an international profile exhibiting at major arts venues across the world from New York to Istanbul.
His latest exhibition in the Djanogly Gallery is a homecoming of sorts as Nottingham is the city of his birth. He told us: “It’s amazing to be back in Nottingham making an exhibition, particularly on this scale because it’s quite ambitious. I probably haven’t shown here since my foundation-year exhibition at Trent thirty years ago.”
Collishaw is renowned for tackling contemporary issues through his breathtaking use of lens-based imagery and captivating installations. Fascinated by the power of the image in contemporary culture, as well as in art history, and its ability to attract and deceive, he frequently combines old and new technologies to explore areas of moral ambiguity. When questioned why this is such a feature of his work he replied: “because it’s the currency that we use. We’re surrounded by technology and it’s an integral part of our lives”.
Despite this, his art is not about technology per se. Drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as history, art history, biology and psychology, Collishaw’s works are always grounded in some theoretical or moral speculation. Take, for example, his most recent work in the show – The Machine Zone – a series of animatronic birds inspired by the experiments of behavioural psychologist, B.F. Skinner. Studying the responses of pigeons to rewards and punishments, Skinner showed how pigeons rewarded by food at random intervals became addicted to pecking at a trigger mechanism. Skinner’s principle of Operant Conditioning is employed by social media sites and online retailers and The Machine Zone comments on both this social manipulation and our obsessive need to seek comfort and validation from the likes and shares that we garner online. In Collishaw’s words: “When the food was introduced they became addicted to pecking. There’s something about the uncertainty and the not knowing when you’re going to be getting it, which is what keeps you coming back and tapping for more. I saw this as being quite similar to us all tap tap tapping on our phones”.
An example in the exhibition of Collishaw’s fascination with old technology – in this case a novelty Victorian toy called a zoetrope – is his amazing The Centrifugal Soul in which the frantic courting rituals of an assortment of exotic birds are set into colourful motion. Another early scientific discovery in the form of phosphorescent ink is employed in the installation In Camera to lend a creepy effect to otherwise banal photographs taken at the scenes of various crimes in the early part of the last century.
Arguably the focal point of the exhibition - especially for a local audience - is the imposing Albion, a cleverly devised projection featuring Nottingham’s own Major Oak. Clearly the image of the famous tree in Sherwood Forest holds a special place in the artist’s memories and he told us: “I’ve been going there for years. When I was a kid growing up around here, I remember visiting it and I was struck by how old and dignified it looked”.
Dominating the first and largest of the Djanogly’s three galleries, it is the size and majesty of the tree that first strikes the beholder. Yet as anyone who has been to Sherwood Forest will know, this natural goliath is propped and supported by a system of steel crutches and chains. Created around the time of the EU Referendum, Albion’s narrative expands beyond its specific local context to take on a metaphorical significance for the country as a whole at a time when political propaganda encouraged romantic notions of a return to “ye olde England and a rose-tinted view of what England ‘used’ to be like”. Again, employing some of the latest technology, the image of the Major Oak has been created by laser-scanning the original in 360 degrees. The result is a slowly rotating ghostly apparition, an illusion with no real substance.
The Djanogly Gallery is home to Mat Collishaw’s ambitious solo exhibition. It features his works: Albion (2017), Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (2011), The Centrifugal Soul (2016), In Camera (2015), The Machine Zone (2019).