Published  30/11/2015

Mat Collishaw: ‘I think human beings are always drawn to the slightly illicit’

Mat Collishaw – interview: ‘I think human beings are always drawn to the slightly illicit’

With two concurrent exhibitions in the north of England, Mat Collishaw talks about the human race’s predilections for violence, debauchery and crime


At first glance, Mat Collishaw’s photographs and zoetropes are exquisite: flowers, butterflies, fairies and carousels. Look a little closer, however, and all is not as it seems: the flowers are rotting from the inside out, the butterflies are disintegrating, the fairies are but deception, and the entertaining roundabout is a repetitive cycle of violence and cruelty. Collishaw’s works make his audience feel attracted and repelled; intrigued and appalled; ashamed and complicit. And this is precisely the artist’s intention. Recognising human nature as both good and bad, Collishaw wants to explore the evil inherent within us all, believing that to face our own demons with honesty might be a step towards making the world a better place.

Mat Collishaw. All Things Fall, 2014. Steel, aluminium, plaster, resin, LED lights, motor, 200 x 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern. Photograph: Todd Whit.

Collishaw (b1966), who is based in London, is currently exhibiting at both the Library of Birmingham and the New Art Gallery Walsall. He spoke to Studio International about his new works, his recurring themes and interests, and his views on the proliferation of violence.

Anna McNay: Can we start by talking a bit about your exhibition in Birmingham? You’ve been working with crime scene negatives from the police force that were made during the 1930s and 40s. You discovered them while you were exploring the photography collections in the Birmingham Library archive. Can you tell me a bit about the negatives and the crimes, and what drew you to them in particular?

Mat Collishaw: Birmingham Library has a huge archive – millions of photographs covering things right from the very birth of photography up until pictures of the Notting Hill Carnival in the 90s. I went up several times to the library and called up volumes of different albums from the archive, but I couldn’t find anything that interested me enough as a starting point from which to make a new work, because they were all kind of complete – they were good photographs as they were and there was nothing I could really add to them. 

While I was there, I ordered up some random volumes of stuff that couldn’t really be listed in any particular category. I came across these pictures of rooms that looked as if there had been a burglary or something – and the archivist told me they had this box of police crime scenes from the 30s and 40s that somebody had handed in anonymously – possibly the descendant of a police forensic photographer who had kept an archive at home. Anyway, they had mysterious origins, which was intriguing.

He brought the box out and it was a treasure trove of the seamier underside of Birmingham life in this period. They were all 5in x 4in negatives, so you couldn’t really see clearly what they were, but there were hundreds of them. I went through, looking for a few interesting ones, then put them on a light box and photographed them. I’ve got an invert app, which can turn a negative back into a positive, so, on the way back down to London, these images started appearing in front of me. I thought this would be a really interesting area, because I could make a work that would be about photography in a way, but also about Birmingham – although perhaps not the side of Birmingham that people would want me to explore. 

Mat Collishaw. Auto-Immolation, 2010. Hard drive, LCD screen, steel, surveillance mirror, wood, 300 x 114 x 52 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.

I went through many different permutations of how this could happen and I finished up printing the negatives in a phosphorescent ink – like a glow-in-the-dark ink – on to clear acrylic. These were then mounted inside acrylic boxes and placed on a stand. There’s a light in front of each box that flashes randomly and, when it flashes, it lights up the image briefly. The image glows because of the phosphorescent paint and it also makes the exterior of the box glow for a few seconds as well. I wanted to make work that responded to the fact that these images are charged in some way. They’re very mundane scenes – a sofa with a shoe turned upside down, or a lamp that’s been overturned – but, because a crime has taken place, they are loaded. My phosphorescent ink attempts to somehow recall the aura that the original image had and it also mirrors the flash of the forensic police camera when the picture was taken.

There are 12 different images in 12 different boxes in the gallery, and they’re all flashing intermittently, so you can never get real access to the pictures: just as one is disappearing, another one on the other side of the room will flash. They taunt you a little bit in their attempt to convey their meaning, which they never really give up. The reason these photographs were taken in the first place was to try to elicit some kind of understanding of what went on, when the incident took place. 

They’re also quite interesting because they’re authorless, in a way – unlike the other photographs in the archive, we don’t have the name of the photographer who took them. They weren’t taken to promote any particular slant or personality. They were taken entirely as empirical evidence of the scene as it was – they’re objective. The boxes they’re mounted in are like vacuums. It’s a zone that’s been preserved to avoid contamination – it’s been taken apart from the real world and set up for analysis.

I also included my own fingerprints in phosphorescent ink on the panels of the images, so you can see me – the artist, the maker – leaving my mark. I’m complicit in the process of making these little crime scenes. My prints are glowing in the same way the fingerprints you find at police crime scenes would in forensic analysis.

AMc: It sounds as if the audience might feel a sense of jeopardy on entering the gallery, a bit like when police officers first enter a crime scene, unsure of what they will find.

MC: Yes, and it’s a little disconcerting because of the flashes going on and off. The title of the installation is In Camera, which is a legal term for when you hold a trial without a jury – basically a hidden trial, where the public don’t have access to the information. It’s like some criminal behaviour being hidden from the world. In camera is also a photographic term, which means that you’re not resorting to any kind of manipulation, that everything is cropped as you take the photograph and there’s no post-production. The camera obscura is an example of this – a black box through which light passes, forming an image inside. I wanted to make something about that photographic process. I see it as the light coming in and polluting the negative, in a way. You have this pure chemical film and then the light corrupts it by burning itself as an image on to the film. These photographs were all evidence of some kind of corruption – stains of humanity that were being documented by forensic pathologists.

Mat Collishaw. Catching Fairies 4, 1996. C-type photograph, 45cm x 65cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.

AMc: What is it, do you think, about human nature that draws us to the macabre and the criminal?

MC: That’s a very good question – and not one I’ve got an answer for. I think human beings are always drawn to the slightly illicit. I don’t know if there’s a mechanism that we have evolved that pays us to know about bad things, because bad things are going to happen, and maybe we should be prepared for them. That’s possibly a reason.

AMc: All your works have this kind of duality to them – making something ugly or terrifying appear alluring or beautiful. Bullet Hole (1988) is an obvious example, but also your Insecticide and Infectious Flowers series [photographs of butterflies being crushed and of mutated and infected flowers respectively]. Do you think that your personality in particular – or maybe just people’s personalities on the whole – comprise these polar opposites, or do you not even think of them as polar opposites?

MC: I try to make the work accessible and engaging, but I also want to include things that are of the real world, and the real world has appalling things going on in it, so I like all those elements to be at play in the work. I don’t want to just cross people out or turn them away – I want them to become engaged, and then, when they’re engaged, they become almost complicit in a crime by enjoying something that has elements of cruelty or debasement. I mean, the history of art is littered with examples of this – paintings of sacrifice, suffering, cruelty and torture. The crucifixion would probably be the most famous example. A lot of the time, it’s painted in quite beautiful, reverential tones. It’s a very strange phenomenon that we enjoy looking at somebody in a state of suffering. That informs what I do as well. 

AMc: Do you find such images shocking? Do you think they were ever intended to be shocking, or were they just meant to be truthful?

MC: Different paintings have different histories behind them. Somebody like Caravaggio, when he was making his religious paintings, was very realistic and, at the time when he painted them, people were shocked and appalled by the fact that somebody had dirty feet – so it wouldn’t necessarily be the fact that somebody is experiencing some hideous torture, it would be the fact that the right reverence wasn’t paid to a religious story and that the model should have washed his feet before being painted. Different time periods have different things that they find unsettling. 

Mat Collishaw. Deliverance installation, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.

AMc: Are you seeking to shock with your work?

MC: Not really to shock, I don’t think, but I am interested in the way people consume images of violence and torture on a daily basis through newspapers and magazines, on the TV and the internet. There are always natural disasters, if not terrorist bombs and other stuff, which is fed to us on a daily basis. And we consume it. So it seems as if the human race does have an appetite for this kind of thing.

AMc: The art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of you: “Lazy artists condemn the evil done by others, but Collishaw makes you glimpse the evil in yourself.”

MC: Well, that’s a very good thing, actually. I think it’s a much more interesting approach to find out what is within ourselves than to look at others. How much do we know ourselves and how much have we inherited genetically through millions of years of evolution, during which we have perhaps been programmed to be not quite as saintly as we’d like to think we are? Delving into this is definitely a position that I’d rather be in, but, unfortunately, it means that I can, at times, look like a not particularly savoury kind of guy. A lot of people probably think that about me, but it’s important not to – as Jesus says – criticise others before you cast the beam out of your own eye. You should look at the problems within yourself and that way the world might become a better place, because, if it’s in you, it’s probably within all of us. The idea of just making work that’s political and criticising other people – whether it’s an oligarch or a capitalist banker – I just don’t see that as being helpful. It’s self-congratulatory – you’re just signalling your own virtue, which is not something that I’ve found to be particularly helpful.

AMc: You’ve just mentioned Jesus. How much do you think your upbringing within a fundamentalist Christadelphian family still affects your view of the world?

MC: I think possibly subconsciously. I never used to think it did, but my brothers and I were brought up to be quite moral about most of the decisions that we made. Things like television were said to be amoral, which immediately made it an extremely attractive proposition – this little box with all this illicit content – it became this fascinating thing. Things became a lot more charged than they might have been for other people who didn’t have that kind of upbringing. It may be that I’m always looking for a moral angle on things, because that was the way I was brought up.

AMc: Let’s talk a bit about your zoetrope at the New Art Gallery in Walsall. That’s certainly got a biblical starting point.

MC: Right. I made it originally for an exhibition at Galleria Borghese in Rome – a baroque temple to art, which has moving figures everywhere. They’re not literally moving, of course, but there’s a sense of movement created by the amazing baroque artists. On the ceiling, there are frescoes of sex and violence and, on the walls, there are marbles of violent and sexual behaviour and paintings of writhing bodies. So I wanted to make something about the human body in movement – sexual and possibly violent – and I decided that I would try to make a recreation from King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents by Ippolito Scarsella.

Mat Collishaw. In Camera, 2015. Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.

I was aware of the fact that in paintings like this, the artist uses certain techniques whereby he will not allow your eye to rest on a particular part of the picture. There’s no focal point, there’s a distribution of bodies pretty evenly across the whole surface of the canvas, to keep your eye moving around. That technique instils a sense of uneasiness and almost panic in the viewer because the eye can’t settle anywhere. I thought this was an interesting technical achievement by these painters, so I decided to make this three-dimensional zoetrope of the subject. I looked at various painters, from Rubens to Tintoretto, and went about designing and animating my figures, building the architecture and then actually physically making the work, which took a year in total from inception to completion. Essentially, it’s all 3D models, which imitate the frames of a film, so the whole thing rotates and the light is synchronised to flicker as it rotates, so you think you’re seeing fluid animation, when, in fact, you’re seeing a sequence of different images. You are physically complicit in the creation of this atrocity.

I’ve recently been reading a lot of books on violence, motivations for violence, reasons why we like looking at things such as cockfighting and bear-baiting, plays, films and theatre performances of atrocities, violent video games, Tom and Jerry, Punch and Judy shows – all that kind of stuff. Steven Pinker wrote a book on the subject claiming that, when violence occurs, the possible outcome is so dramatic – we can either win or lose and either way it’s potentially life-threatening – that every little dodge and thrust and parry and act of conflict needs to be something we’re familiar with. Then, when it does arise, we’re better equipped to survive – we’re primed for it. According to other books I’ve read, researchers can’t find any evidence at all that violent crime books, films, etc actually go on to instigate violence.

AMc: It’s interesting you should say that because I was going to ask you whether you thought that witnessing violence bred further violence. Clearly not.

MC: Well, the number of sources for witnessing violence is increasing exponentially. In the past, we would have had maybe a few live violent things – boxing matches or whatever – and some paintings, but now, it’s so prevalent on the internet and in gaming, and our immersion in violent literature is becoming far more all-consuming than it ever was. But real-world violence in relation to the population is actually becoming a lot less. The amount of material reproducing scenes and acts of violence is increasing, but, overall, we’re becoming less violent as a species. So it seems we’re not affected by it.

Mat Collishaw. Insecticide 13, 2009. C-type photograph, 182 x 182 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Blain|Southern.

AMc: That’s the opposite of what the media would have us believe.

MC: Exactly, yes. It’s a strategy developed by the media because it works. Things such as terrorist bombings – relatively small and pointed acts of violence – garner massive media attention, so it gives us the impression that the world’s becoming a much more violent place.

AMc: Coming back to your installation: how long have you been interested in the idea of the zoetrope?

MC: I’ve always been interested in it. I think it comes back to not having had a TV, and so I used to watch other people’s TVs through their windows when I was doing my paper round and I’d see this little box that could recreate an animated image. Like a lot of kids, I started making toy theatres with cereal boxes. Then, in my early teens, I started making stop motion films. Then I became interested in a lot of early optical toys – Victorian devices where people were starting to try to animate things. The zoetrope itself is an optical toy from the 1840s, the kind of thing that a family would settle down to in the evening, before they had inhouse entertainment such as televisions. The process that I’m using, that of 3D animation, is a much more modern technological version of these very old optical toys. The first one I made was in 2008, I think, and I’ve made about seven or eight since then.

AMc: How fast does this particular one have to rotate before we see it as a moving image?

MC: All the ones I make go at pretty much the same speed – rotating once every second, which doesn’t sound very fast, but it is pretty fast, particularly when you’ve got quite a large object. If anything came off, it could probably take your eye out or rip your arm off.

AMc: Presumably you’re collaborating with other people to figure out all the complex technology?

MC: Yes. Assembling the whole thing is a nightmare. It all starts with my design, then I get somebody to animate this, building the actual architecture using computer-aided design. Then, in this instance, parts of the architecture were printed in Belgium; the figures were printed in Madrid; the architectural models then came to the north of England where we had moulds made and casts made from those moulds; figures were painted in London; and then things were assembled in another studio in London. So there were about six or seven places all producing different parts of the project, which is very problematic, because if anything is even just 0.5mm out, the whole project is thrown massively. Managing it all is quite challenging.

AMc: I can imagine. And moving it as well?

MC: It comes in two parts. It’s more or less a plug-in-and-play thing. We put the base on and then we have a gantry, a large crane, which drops the top on. We plug in the cables and then we press play and it works. It is big and heavy to move though – and very fragile.

AMc: Do you know how much it weighs?

MC: Three hundred and fifty kilos. A lot of it is made from resin, which is the 3D print side of it, but then everything is assembled on to an armature made from steel and aluminium, and there’s also a motor and gears and electric circuitry underneath, which controls the flashing lights and the rotation.

AMc: Do you think it’s important for people to know where the inspiration for a work comes from, or what the story is?

MC: Not necessarily, because, unfortunately, it’s all still going on. It’s happening in Syria right now: such hideous genocide. Part of the motivation behind making this work as I did was to make it look a bit like a carousel – it’s almost this hideous entertainment structure, which carries on going around and around and around, generation after generation, in this cycle of violence, which carries on repeating itself. As I said, hopefully, it’s getting less so, but it’s still there – it’s still going on and it’s happening in difficult times and it would have been happening thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of years before that. 

AMc: Does it have an impact on you, thinking about and working with such heavy themes all the time? 

MC: It makes me feel sad.

AMc: Just to touch on something slightly lighter, then: you’ve also done a lot of work on the theme of fairies. Do you believe in fairies?

MC: Not really, no. I wanted to make work that was about the ridiculous pursuit of the ephemeral and that, in making art, particularly in making photographs, we’re trying to take things from the real world and make records of them. I often wonder why the real world is not good enough as it is. Why do we have to try to capture everything and pin it down and have it there for us to examine, in the same way that butterfly collectors go out and kill exquisite butterflies and pin them to boards so we can analyse them and have power over them? So the pictures I made of myself trying to catch fairies with a fishing net in Clapton Pond [in east London] were about the absurdity of trying to capture these little mythical, ephemeral creatures.

AMc: Is there a comment in there somewhere, as well – and, in fact, in quite a lot of what you’ve been talking about already – about the reliability of photography as a purveyor of truth?

MC: Exactly, yes, because I’ve made other works about the Cottingley Fairies as well – those little girls who made those fake photographs back in 1917, I think, was it? They made quite convincing pictures and a lot of people believed them, including Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s our desire to see something that’s not there. We’ll be convinced by something, even if the evidence isn’t that convincing, because the desire within us to believe is so strong. We want to believe there’s something more to this world than what we experience – a higher power, whether it’s a god or fairies, or just something else. There has to be something greater that can save us – something pure, something that’s not tainted by this grubby world that we live in.

AMc: It’s all about illusion, really, because, as you just said, even with the zoetrope, we’re seeing something in the movement that’s not actually there.

MC: Yes.

AMc: Is this a theme that you’re going to continue exploring in future work?

MC: I’ve got three or four different projects on the go that I’m in the early stages of developing right now, and, yes, certain themes do recur. I’m working on one project with virtual reality and another with robots that move TV screens around with my video content on them. I’m building a chandelier, which will also be a zoetrope, which will contain a scene of drunken debauchery – literally figures swinging from the chandeliers. I’m also trying to make a work about the origins of art and why we started making it in the first place. I’m working with an evolutionary psychologist called Geoffrey Miller and he believes it’s all down to sexual selection – that we make art to impress – mainly as men trying to impress women, so women will mate with us. It’s a complex subject. There’s going to be an exhibition at the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, hosted by the maverick collector David Walsh, and I am hopefully going to be one of the artists. It has to be decided by December, so I’ve got about a month to come up with something. I never really get bored, because there are so many different angles to every project. It’s a privilege to be involved with so many different things.

Mat Collishaw’s major survey exhibition will be showing at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, until 10 January 2016. In Camera will be showing at the Gallery, Library of Birmingham, also until 10 January 2016.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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