Mat Collishaw’s Dreams

Mat Collishaw’s art envelops us in a twilight world poised between the alluring and the revolting, the familiar and the shocking, the poetic and the morbid. With a visual language embracing diverse media, the beauty of Collishaw’s work draws us in – seductive, captivating, hypnotic – only to more forcefully repel us as we perceive the darker fantasies within. A repulsion triggered not by what we see, but by our innate response to it.

Pornography, the crucifixion, gleaming fairies, syphilitic child prostitutes, bestiality, bondage, addiction, religion, exaltation and despair, even the final hours of a death-row inmate. There is seemingly no taboo left unbroken, no dark corner Collishaw is unwilling to explore – and yet, the work is utterly romantic, exquisitely beautiful, an expression of Collishaw’s wish to “create images that are awe-inspiring”.

The forbidden has always fascinated Collishaw: “I am fuelled by things in my past which were suppressed or held at a distance, which have generated some form of hunger to make my work.” Hardly surprising then, that themes such as stifled sexual desire, brutal and perverse lust, the power of media imagery and the concept of divinity recur throughout his oeuvre.

What is surprising, startling even, is the tenderness and ecstasy – the almost sublime – embodied within the work. “There are mechanisms within us that are primed to respond to all kinds of visual material, leaving us with no real say over what we happen to find stimulating.” Collishaw is interested in imagery’s effect on the subliminal, and explores this by making the vile desirable, the repulsive inviting, whilst discretely positioning himself within art-history through his reference to old masters and contemporary dialogues, as in his work The End of Innocence(a digital recreation of Francis Bacon’s painting of Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X) or his questioning of Victorian mores and ideals, executed with 21st century technology.

Collishaw’s interest in the Victorians is no coincidence: 19th century Britain viewed itself in the light of scientific progress and empirical soberness. An age inhabited by educated and prosaic people. In retrospect however, child prostitution, poverty, perversion and a collective blood-lust ran parallel to what was deemed an enlightened age. Collishaw references the Victorian period by simulating its elaborately decorative, romantic style, but he indirectly conjures up that society’s dark side, the corrupt underbelly so pertinent to the present day. He drags our darkest urges into the light – illustrating that humans will never overcome their baser instincts, regardless of aesthetic or scientific advancement. The fact that Collishaw does not take the moral high ground makes his work all the more compelling: he simply shows us the beautiful – even if it is a beauty that sometimes turns out to be highly suspect.

In his recent exhibition ‘Creation Condemned’, the world pole dancing champion contorts tortuously around a steel rod, clad in glittering sequined underwear, accompanied by an unsettling, dirge-like soundtrack. The flat-screen panels are framed inside an antique wooden altar triptych; the video repeats on a loop. Yet what we see is not salacious, vulgar erotica, but a sinuous, choreographed dance that charms us like a sensual lullaby: the video runs in slow motion, expanding the dancer’s movement into a trance-like act that seems almost spiritual. The frame – the displaced altarpiece – enhances the antilogy. We feel stimulated and humbled simultaneously. We are seduced by a beauty that awakens sexual desire and yet evokes religious reverence. We are helpless in the wave of conflicting emotions. So we surrender: we simply give in to looking on in awe. (via)