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Behind the Scenes: Mat Collishaw at Blain Southern

From sexual selection to the menace of digital media, artist Mat Collishaw describes his latest exhibition at Blain Southern

Mat Collishaw doesn’t do things by halves. In his new exhibition at Blain Southern, the Nottingham-born artist tackles the digital revolution, Victorian technology and the human condition in one fell swoop.

Collishaw started out exhibiting with his Goldsmiths and Young British Artist contemporaries, but – as we have all become used to looking at the world through images and digital media – his work has also evolved. Collishaw’s preferred mediums have stretched from photography to film, video projections or, in this latest case, virtual reality.

“It is very frustrating because I’m not very technical at all. I’m interested in ideas from old paintings and books, and I just want to do them in a contemporary way,” he says. “My work is combining new technologies with old ideas.”

To bring this to life, Collishaw works with a variety of teams: from the computer science department at Nottingham University to a studio developing virtual reality walkthroughs, as well as architectural and photographic historians.

The star of The Centrifugal Soul exhibition is a zoetrope (a wheel of still images that, when spun, creates an animated scene). Collishaw’s huge version illustrates birds of paradise performing their elaborate mating rituals. At face value, it’s a mesmerising display of colour. But the idea behind the piece was influenced by the work of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, whose writing considers why humans show off to one another – and how.

“It has to do with Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and that our means of showing off by buying a Rolex watch or an SUV or another Gucci suit is the same as birds of paradise having exotic plumages and doing seductive dances as courtship rituals,” says Collishaw.

“Although it appears very superficial that we decorate ourselves in a certain way to the people around us, it’s absolutely instrumental to our survival: if we don’t have courtship and spread our genes around, our species will die out.

“I try to make those ideas come alive, using all these colours, shapes, designs and movements to draw the viewer in and attract them by using all those tricks of seduction to entertain and captivate,” he laughs.

Collishaw has built his contemporary take on the Victorian optical toy by computer design, 3D printing and then hand-painting individual pieces, which are assembled on a motor with a shaft and LED lights. As it starts to furiously spin, birds reveal their plumage, hummingbirds flap their wings on the spot and flowers bloom over and again.

The exhibition is not all just technical wizardry, though. It also includes a dozen trompe l’oeil oil paintings of British garden birds chained to brightly graffitied walls, layering a 17th-century artistic tradition on top of 21st-century subculture.

“The subtext is a kind of warning about this spectre of the digital revolution,” Collishaw says. “It’s a lot of fun putting on a virtual reality headset, but what are the social implications? In the background there’s something quite forboding about digital media.

“It’s also about the fact that a lot of jobs in factories, clerical or routine work are going to go to computers or robots, and that the consequences might be even more dramatic than during the Industrial Revolution. I’m trying to comment on new media, as well as working with it.”

Another large-scale optical illusion in the exhibition is a ‘Pepper’s ghost’, a reflective technique popular during the Victorian era when it was often used for stage productions of Hamlet when his father’s spirit enters. Today, a laser scan can collect data about an object and turn it into an image, as a teleprompter might.

“It’s more like the way a bat would see an object than how the human eye would,” says the artist. “Nothing like a photograph.” His chosen subject is the Major Oak, Robin Hood’s rumoured shelter in Sherwood Forest, in the county where Collishaw was born.

The 1,000-year-old tree is projected like a lifesize ghost itself, present in the room but not tangible as it slowly rotates. In reality, the tree is hollow and rotten within the trunk, but has been supported by scaffolding for more than a century.

Collishaw seems preoccupied with the dark. Viewing his installations usually involves being plunged into shadow; even his photographs shot in daylight are punched onto black surroundings like explosions of colour. “It just seems to be a method I am instinctively drawn towards,” he says. “I think it focuses attention on something quite specific, rather than going into a contemporary art exhibition where everything is white. Your eyes are drawn towards the light source, like a moth to a flame.”

More wonderment in pitch black surroundings will take place from 18 May at Somerset House, where the artist will take visitors back in time to the birth of photography. Using virtual reality he will recreate the exhibition where William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public in Birmingham in the 1830s.

Unlike Collishaw’s other works, which can be viewed in an instant, wandering around the eight-by-six-metre installation at Somerset House will require more time, but only a little: six minutes. “I don’t think you should make works that demand more time than people have,” he explains.

His methods and mediums are intensive, but this seems to suit Collishaw down to the ground. “I get bored very quickly. If I’m resting for more than a day I get slightly irritable,” he admits. “I like to meet people about different projects, sniffing around like a detective and finding little leads for new ideas.” What’s next on his agenda is truly anyone’s guess. 

Until 27 May, 4 Hanover Square, W1S, www.blainsouthern.com