Everything about the climate crisis is overwhelming: its magnitude, its complexity, its many faces and implications. At this moment of great urgency our relationship to the natural world has never felt more broken or abject. One of the enduring issues has been how to grapple with the immensity of it all. In his exhibition Arrhythmia, Mat Collishaw creates his own fragile ecosystems, poetic mise-en-scènes and ominous tableaux. It comes as no surprise that an artist so skilled in exploring different modes of perception has found haunting ways of capturing instants, creating little theatres, within the unfathomable.

Collishaw has often drawn on 19th century magic, particularly in the form of illusions created by optical devices, and while he still draws on these—here, in the form of a zoetrope—he also calls on a contemporary form of illusion: artificial intelligence. With Victorian zoetropes we can view the machinery even if we may not understand it, whereas the elusive engineering of AI is far more abstract, indeed phantasmagoric in Adorno’s sense of the word, its mechanism invisible, the signs of human manufacture concealed. Yet like the eminent 19th century magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the creator of a flowering orange tree automaton in which the cycles of nature are accelerated, Collishaw is aware of the philosophical potential of these feats of engineering, and of the moments of ontological hesitation, one could even call them a kind of visual arrhythmia, from which new readings are born.

In the zoetrope Sounding Sirens, the instrument’s very mechanics help stage a power struggle, a dominion and subjugation endlessly reenacted, between two entities: an intelligent octopus and a herd of less enlightened jellyfish. In the tormented ballet between the two, the troupe of jellyfish forms an undulating cage round the hapless octopus, whose tentacles reach out from between the spinning slats as if grasping for a foothold, fighting for expression. The very nature of each creature adds nuance to the spectacle: the octopus, often camouflaged, solitary and discreet, inhabits the deep and embodies thought and purpose, whereas jellyfish are surface-dwelling creatures, easily swayed by currents and visible en masse, whose bloom speaks of warming seas. Sirens lure sailors from their paths but they also alert to looming disaster. Yet even dramas at sea remain at the mercy of other forces; the zoetrope dangles from a metal chain, vulnerable to foreign interference, manipulated like a puppet or chandelier.

We continue at sea with the haunting video Even to the End, which opens with a row of eight Wardian cases balancing on the water. Each case encloses a mysterious plant, each root tells a story, as they flower in their glass enclosures, tiny spectacles of life that appear like will-o’-the-wisp over the nocturnal sea. To the mournful chords of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings they begin to drift towards a Böcklin type island with inhospitable white craggy rock. Once on land, however, we enter a lush, verdant world, full of plenitude and possibility, but soon this plenitude shifts from bucolic to barren as we move into a devastated landscape savaged by wildfire, nothing left but burning embers (whose glow harks back to the fiery sunset reflected in the glass cases earlier). We travel through dead forests bathed in a melancholy blue light, a crepuscular landscape that shows how our appreciation of the natural world, our desire to capture and reproduce it, has been surpassed over the centuries by a blind destruction, a destruction enabled by inaction; like the Wardian cases, we’re slowly drifting, passively, towards our fate. Yet the nine-minute elegy ends with a vision of these glass cases hovering again in the distance, offering a final window of possibility. 

A spirit of the past animates Whispering Weeds, a three-dimensional simulation in which Collishaw grants movement to Dürer’s watercolour drawing Large Piece of Turf from 1503, a quiet corner of a landscape, possibly a meadow, pulled into focus. Three tall dandelions sway on their stalks amidst a profusion of other weeds and shorter, flatter blades of green. We can imagine how it must have been on the day Dürer experienced it over 500 years ago, can almost hear the water ripple and the rustle of the wind, an unsullied immersion in the natural world centuries before the Industrial Revolution, as meditative as a pensive saint in his study. Dürer’s plant studies were a profound sort of portraiture, as virtuosic in detail as a bird’s plumage or a human face. In Columbine we again encounter a piece of turf, this time isolated from the landscape, with delicate purple columbine flowers, symbols of peace and wisdom in the Renaissance. Seeing these two watercolours set in motion can’t help but remind us of something simple but fundamental: our experience of a work of art should never be fixed, should forever remain in movement and be subject to change. 

In the large charcoal drawing Pandora, Collishaw introduces Dürer to 19th century artist zoologist Ernst Haeckel within the atemporal universe of an AI-generated artwork, although here it is not a study of nature but one of the final pages of the Bible. Dürer’s engraving of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) is merged, or rather submerged, in a profusion of marine organisms by Haeckel, a radical Darwinian whose unshakeable belief in the aesthetics and symmetry of natural forms resulted in bizarre theories of evolution. In this uncanny piece we sense a deep entanglement, technology as unchecked nature that’s taken root in our souls, impossible to extricate. AI itself has no form of its own, it takes on whatever shape it’s given and can easily run, or in this case writhe, amok in exaggerated objectivity. Perhaps it is also a portrait of our mental landscapes: overpopulated, oversaturated, with far too much input to see or navigate clearly.  

This drawing can be read as a sinister prelude of sorts to Heterosis, a panorama projected onto two walls. If Even to an End was a eulogy for the natural world, Heterosis is a eulogy for civilisation itself, in which the National Gallery has been transformed into a modern ruin engulfed by vegetation, now the dominant life force. Natural light spills in from above, the ceiling has most likely caved in, as shafts of light convene with marble pillars. The dark red wallpaper is mottled with lichens and mildew. Tree trunks push up through the floor, ivy creeps around the wooden frames. Instead of gallery visitors, dark green leaves cluster round the paintings, the painted landscapes now buried under living foliage. Impassive branches twist into view, lengthening before our eyes. Some paintings hang crooked on the walls but most of them remain in the place where they were once hung, clinging to a past order and symmetry. Most works of Vanitas depict still lifes but here the still lifes are freed from their stillness, like liberated understudies. The National Gallery is no longer a controlled environment– the temperature gauges and light censors are kaput and irrelevant, as are all the stories, mythical and Biblical, which have provided narratives to our existence.

This piece could be interpreted as a brilliant, chilling sequel to the Just Stop Oil protests at the National Gallery, when young activists flung tomato soup at van Gogh’s Sunflowers, arguing that society values paintings above life itself. If, as they claim, works of art are prized more highly than human life itself, then this really would mark the endgame, the final chapter, of existence, when even our masterpieces are abandoned to nature. These paintings are highly treasured by a single species, and if that species ceases to exist, so do their value and guardianship. Once it finally comes to this—the artist envisions the scene unfolding some one hundred years from now– we are truly doomed. 

With these six works Collishaw has created moments of wonder and sublime horror and, in their midst, a space of reckoning. In many ways they are presided over by the spirit of the great 19th century explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who drew attention early on to the interconnectedness of all ecological systems and the ways in which human behavior was impacting the natural world, and plant life in particular. Humboldt’s hundreds of maps and scientific illustrations are artworks in themselves, guided by the dictum they should “speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind.” 

One could say this of Collishaw’s art, too: it speaks to the senses without fatiguing the mind (except possibly Pandora, a portrait of this fatigue). But whereas Humboldt, like Dürer, was still mapping the world, Collishaw is an artist working in an age of loss and catastrophe, and within that vastness he has found ways of showcasing the imperceptible, articulating stark truths through poetic constructs and illusions. These are small acts of observation we are able to apprehend, even if we know that whatever we perceive is an infinite fraction of the whole. Yet as with any magic show or optical trick, the audience is complicit: the more passive they are, the more successful the illusion, and now in the climate emergency, any passivity is a kind of complicity. 

Chloe Aridjis