The Nerve Rack is a site specific installation by Mat Collishaw which explores the themes of martyrdom and treason, worship and heresy. This is a commission by Ushaw Historic House, Chapels and Gardens, the former seminary in County Durham.
A life-sized animatronic eagle is displayed opposite one of the treasures of Ushaw – a lectern topped with a bronze sculpture of an eagle designed by Augustus Pugin. The two eagles confront each other inside a large barrier, as though in an arena of conflict. The Nerve Rack is Pugin’s golden eagle stripped of its embellishment to reveal a chilling machine-driven steel armature. Whilst tormenting a small mechanical mouse, Collishaw’s eagle confronts its adversary and raises its wings to full span in a bid to intimidate its more stoic opponent. The mechanistic nature of Collishaw’s ‘mirror image’ of Pugin’s eagle suggests a cold and clinical ruthlessness which echoes the fanatical enmity that existed between the two opposing viewpoints of Christianity following the Reformation. The eagles tensely represent both victim and aggressor, provoking thoughts of the two opposing viewpoints of Christianity; Protestant and Catholic, martyr and heretic. The installation highlights the dangers of extremism and intransigence and feels relevant to situations today as much as the history from 450 years ago.
Collishaw drew his inspiration from a book in Ushaw’s extensive archive. “I was drawn to a document in the library The True, Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics (1584), annotated by Elizabeth’s chief priest hunter and torturer Richard Topcliffe. It outlines the two diametrically opposing viewpoints that defined religious belief in England at the time. When church and state are bound together the consequences are magnified, Protestantism and Catholicism, martyrdom and heresy – they are two sides of the same coin. It was this mirroring of religious conviction that I wanted to work with.”
The book was written by William Allen, the founder of the English College at Douai – the institution from which Ushaw originated. It was composed in response to a publication by William Cecil defending the torture and execution of Catholic men like Edmund Campion, arguing that their execution was on the basis of political rather than religious grounds. Allen’s response argued that the work of Catholic missionaries was religious in nature rather than a covert military or political tactic.
Ushaw’s copy is signed by Richard Topcliffe with the annotations ‘Compiled by that monsterous trator Doctor Allen’ and ‘Woe betide to him, who calleth good, evil, and evil, [good].
Collishaw was also interested in the collection of relics held at Ushaw. “I was looking at the reliquaries at Ushaw and thinking about the compelling idea of martyrdom; believers giving their life for a doctrine and becoming sanctified for their sacrifice. To one side a devotee would have died a martyr, to the other side they would have been a fanatic who died for the wrong reason.”
The Nerve Rack is the latest contemporary art installation which respond to the history and buildings of Ushaw, but is the first specially commissioned as a site specific installation. This approach is intended to shine new light on different aspects of Ushaw’s history and encourage visitors to looks at its historic spaces afresh. The Nerve Rack is sited in the Ante Chapel at Ushaw facing the Gothic splendour of St Cuthbert’s Chapel. Augustic Pugin, best known for his design of the interior of the Houses of Parliament and the Elizabeth Tower, also designed some of the buildings and many interior features at Ushaw.