Having gotten his breakthrough exhibiting work in Damien Hirst’s infamous Freeze exhibition, Mat Collishaw is a key member of the Young British Artists. Throughout his career, Collishaw’s work has been exhibited across the world, from New York to Istanbul. However, it is his latest exhibition in the Djanogly Gallery that is a homecoming of sorts for Collishaw, for Nottingham marks the city of his birth, with the artist remarking how “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 thirty years ago when I showed my foundation show in Trent”.
Collishaw’s works are renowned for tackling contemporary issues through the use of breath-taking imagery and captivating installations. Fascinated by the simultaneous deceptive and alluring qualities of imagery, Collishaw has a tendency to combine Victorian pre-animation techniques with modern technological developments to challenge topics of moral ambiguity. In reference to this use of technology, Collishaw states how he uses it “because it’s the currency that we use. We’re surrounded by technology and it’s an integral part of our lives”.
However, although Collishaw draws heavily on technology in his art, his art isn’t about technology per se. Drawing inspiration from history, art history, biology and psychology, Collishaw’s works are always grounded in something else in addition to its technological roots. Take for instance The Machine Zone, a series of animatronic bird models inspired by the experiments of behavioural psychologist, B.F. Skinner. The theory goes that when Skinner’s pigeons were given food at random when they pecked a button, they became addicted to pecking the button in the hopes of getting food at some point. Having this knowledge of behaviourism, Collishaw created The Machine Zone to comment on our obsession with social media and our need to seek validation and comfort from the likes and shares that we garner online. “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”.
With images of what lies beneath being a pervasive theme in his work, Collishaw also explores the notion of superficiality, with a lot of his work leaving you questioning the “slippery nature of imagery”. From The Centrifugal Soul’s exploration of desperate mating rituals within birds of paradise to In Camera’s use of crime scene negatives which, outside of the criminal context, are otherwise banal in nature, yet demonstrate how images always leave you wanting more.
Arguably the focal point of the exhibition is the statuesque Albion, a piece inspired by Nottingham’s own Major Oak, with Collishaw maintaining how “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”. Indeed, it is this dignity that informs the work itself: on the surface the tree appears elegant and imposing, yet its elegance and imposing state is paradoxically held up by steel rods and chains – human interventions that undermine its defining values. Created around the time of the EU Referendum, Albion’s narrative expands past its Nottingham heritage to take on the expressions of a country as a whole, when the political propaganda became infested by ideas of a return to a “ye olde England and this nostalgia - this rose tinted view of what England used to be like in the past”. By laser scanning the Major Oak to form the installation, the overall result is one of ghostly connotations, embodying what Collishaw summarises as being “a myth that’s dependent on the language and the way that the whole thing is being sold to us. This tree kind of ghost thing is being presented as something that we should grasp but this illusive thing doesn’t really exist”.
The Djanogly Gallery will be home to this expansive Mat Collishaw exhibition from Friday 13 March (preview) until Sunday 7 June. Featuring the pieces: Albion, The Centrifugal Soul, In Camera, The Machine Zone, Thresholds and GASCONADES, the exhibition is a large and exciting presentation of Collishaw’s work.