Mat Collishaw has never shied away from difficult or challenging subject matter; ideas that deal with death, destruction and decay become hypnotic and compelling. Often creating a dialogue with past masters to explore humanity’s dark side, Collishaw’s seemingly simple, but actually complex works are often based on references from myth and art history, turning them into metaphors for contemporary society. The exhibition highlights these relationships, while reflecting on image manipulation, the transience of life and instability of the planet’s ecology.
One of the exhibition’s highlights is Retrospectre (2010), a homage to Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov. As with the director’s films, the work focuses on visual experience of watching ritualistic events. A collage of images including; birds of prey, burning water, smoke, frightened horses and slaughtered animals evoke the elemental forces that appear in Parajanov’s films.
The Centrifugal Soul, (2016) is a sculpture in the form of a zoetrope, a pre-film animation device that produces the illusion of motion through rapid rotation and stroboscopic light. The zoetrope animates scenes of bowerbirds and birds of paradise as they perform elaborate mating rituals. The work offers a captivating demonstration of how aesthetic diversity has evolved through sexual selection and also reflects the artist’s ongoing examination of our insatiable appetite for visual stimulation.
The exhibition continues with the audiovisual installation The End of Innocence (2009) from the Fundació Sorigué’s collection. The ghostly, digitally manipulated portraits of Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez and Francis Bacon appear and disappear behind a curtain of constantly falling digital ‘rain’. Collishaw says of the work, ‘Bacon seemed to take the Velazquez portrait and plug it into the electric grid. Now in an age when everything is becoming rapidly digitalised, this work attempts to push this ethereal mirage into the nebulous world of micro computing and binary memory.’
The lower floor of the museum hosts ten other works, including the photographic series Insecticide (2006-2014). Here butterflies – symbols of the fragility of life – are crushed and enlarged to an exaggerated scale. The works capture the lifeless bodies of the insects, suspended in darkness and yet illuminated by the vibrant hues of their torn wings. The bright and mesmerising colours are in contrast with the dark nature of the subject, with the splayed bodies, broken antennae and dislocated limbs.
Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (2011) is a series of photographs, presented in the manner of Flemish still life painting. Such paintings often acted as a memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death and the transience of life on earth. For these works, Collishaw researched the last meals requested by prisoners on death row prior to execution. The dramatic solemnity of these images addresses a morally and politically charged issue.