Mat Collishaw: Into the Void
521 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10011
12 Jan through 18 Feb, 2012
Upstairs, in the dimly lit galleries on the second floor of the Tanya Bonakdar gallery in Chelsea, is a pristine solo installation of artwork by the British artist Mat Collishaw. Collishaw’s work, which lives in the expansive visual and conceptual space between the beautiful and the gruesome, explores issues of morality and mortality. Known best for his photographs, in this installation, entitled Vitacide, after a “clear, colorless, pesticide solution,” Collishaw experiments with sculpture as well as video and light. Drawing heavily upon the visual tropes of art history, Collishaw transports his 21st century concepts, critiques, and concerns, backward into the visual style of European art and architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries. With a kind of subtlety that we rarely see in artwork today, Collishaw tricks his viewers into seeing beauty in what could be considered morally repulsive, and evokes in us a sense of nostalgia for what turns out most often to be the destruction of life, nature, and beauty.
Often talked about as the forgotten member of the Britart moment, being a contemporary of the ever aggravating and grandiose Damien Hirst and a part of the now infamous Freeze exhibition in 1988, Collishaw’s art world neglect seems to have served him well. Over the years he has worked to cultivate a more sophisticated and complex body of work, getting away from the shock value images of his Goldsmith’s beginnings.
Too young to be aware of the art world when the Young British Artist’s (YBAs) rocketed into prominence, I first came across the work of Mat Collishaw during last year’s Armory Art fair. Hidden within countless rows of galleries displaying mediocre artwork, was a series of photographs by Collishaw titled Last Meal on Death Row, Texas (2010). Represented at Tanya Bonakdar in greater number, and printed on a larger scale, these images remain breathtakingly seductive. Photographed in the style of 17th century Dutch still life paintings, with all the mysterious and velvety shadows we associate with a Rembrandt portrait rather than a 21st century photograph, Collishaw documents the last meal requested by Texan men serving their “timeless time” on death row. Giving these sentenced inmates a humanity we rarely see even in fictional procedurals, these photographs are certainly not without judgment. As viewers we can’t help but link the food we see to the faces we don’t—“tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” said the famed French gastronome Brillat-Savarin.
Like looking at portraits and all the indicators of personality and character they contain, we acquaint ourselves with the men behind these meals by what we see before us: we marvel at one man’s gluttony and another’s restraint: we wonder what each meal meant specially to each man: we consider for the first time the horror of planning a “last” supper. Viewers are forced into a Proustian mindset of involuntary memory, where a single, heaping bowl of cornflakes and a glass of milk, are lonely but comforting objects on a shadowy table, that elicit childhood memories of morning breakfasts. Collishaw has said that a successful image in his mind must be both beautiful and cruel, and these photographs seem to epitomize this sentiment. No matter how you feel about capital punishment it is cruel, and even the concept of the last meal, a final gesture of kindness and a small relinquishing of control given to inmates by the correctional facility, can be considered a great cruelty. It is by “exploiting our weakness for beauty” that Collishaw turns food into complicated symbols.
Whenever issues of morality and mortality exist, religion lurks close behind. In a clearly agnostic manner, Collishaw investigates the role the afterlife plays in life itself, and it’s influence over our decisions and beliefs. Installed at the far end of the room containing the Death Row images, like some kind of bizarre culmination, is a life-sized, steel sculpture of the deceased body of Christ. Based upon a Renaissance sculpture, it is reimagined by Collishaw as an aerial image made in negative relief, depicting Christ’s frail body lying in apparent peace and covered by a thin shroud. The sculpture, which reads like a two-dimensional, Lenticular postcard, is brought to life by a horizontal and mechanical LED light running behind the artwork like a copy machine or a scanner. As light passes over the indented areas, it creates the effect of a body brought to life.
The tenderness with which the subject is rendered is mitigated by the sterile manner in which Collishaw has chosen to illuminate the piece. The title, The Corporeal Audit (2012), adds to the clinical nature of the work. It implies that we are not meant to contemplate on the soul of Christ, but rather on this man’s dead body. The idea of “auditing” the body of Christ is also an odd proposition. As with much of Collishaw's work, we are torn between two opposing responses, one being the adoration of Christ’s morality, and the other our many questions concerning mortality. Collishaw has often expressed a deep interest in how viewers respond to images in ways they can’t control, and it’s a fine line he walks in his artwork between manipulation and investigation.
Another subject Collishaw tackles in Vitacide with the same duality of purpose, is the natural world, where beauty, growth and decay play strongly into our notions of nature. At the entrance of the gallery the first images we see are two large-format, framed photographs, colorfully rich and abstract. The most ambiguous artworks of the show, they come from Collishaw’s ongoing Insecticide (2011) series—a characteristically playful title referring to a pesticide used against insects. The photographs have the movement and pattern of something forcefully smashed or exploded, and are actually images of smashed insects. Insecticide is a series that microscopically documents the fragility of an insect’s life, and by extension our own vulnerability. Modeled after Victorian magic lantern slides that were designed to “kindle and capture the imagination,” Collishaw makes total destruction look like a beautiful process.
Collishaw tackles issues of nature again in the final room of the gallery, with a large installation of resin, plant-like sculptures contained within antique-styled vitrines titled, The Venal Muses. Growing out of what seems to be blackly polluted soil, sometimes through rusting tin cans, plastic bottles, and other garbage that often fills plant beds, are the richly green stems of bright pink flowers. These flowers look like mutated plants on display for their strangeness, like relics or curiosities. As if they were relatives of the bloodthirsty plant from Little Shop of Horrors, we approach Collishaw’s flowers warily and with uncertainly. Though the title implies a kind of corruption, it’s hard to guess if we are directly responsible for it, as the artist’s work feels more fanciful than political. It seems to be out of character for Collishaw to depict nature as powerless, or unable to fight against modern society’s constant and unprecedented abuses. Instead, as in science fiction stories, he makes us ashamed of our lack of restraint in the face of our own desires, and the effect this has on our planet, while suggesting that we might very well become the victims of our own disregard. Nature itself is beautiful and cruel, much like Collishaw’s work.
Vitacide is a beautifully minimal show that is a little too pristine for Collishaw’s artwork, which needs to feel less contained than it does here. Collishaw’s work takes time to look at, as it draws you in immediately with its seductive beauty and leaves you with a lingering feeling of disquiet. In a telling TateShots video from 2009, Collishaw says of his work: “I don’t like being given a particular context to make work in, I think it’s kind of antithetical to the art practice; you should be making work into the void. That’s what you're doing as an artist, you’re putting something out into nowhere, and that thing has to stand on its own. This should be quite the brave thing to do, because you’re creating something from nothing...I prefer to be making things purely for the void.”
Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.