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Interview with Mat Collishaw: Nappy change for art

Disillusioned and sick of heavy-handed art that tries to shock, the artist has now turned to kitsch and sentimental themes

Mat Collishaw made his debut while still a Goldsmith’s student in Damien Hirst’s landmark “Freeze” exhibition in 1988. Here, his uncomfortable close-up image of a man’s head supposedly pierced by a bullet hole and presented in a grid of 15 light boxes, quickly became one of the most striking symbols of the new, coolly executed, but throat-grabbingly immediate, Young British Art. Since then, Collishaw has worked in a wide range of film and photographic media, using film, video and digital photography as well as producing intricate sculptures which combine antique artefacts and early optical devices with the most contemporary technology.

Louisa Buck: At Shoreditch Town Hall you are showing a video projection of a baby having its nappy changed.

Mat Collishaw: It doesn’t sound much; nothing else is happening other than that. It’s quite a humble, mundane little operation; probably what the London art world deserves, really.

LB: But it becomes something altogether different when the baby is blown up to 25 feet across and bathed in the kind of ultra violet light that is now put in public toilets to stop intravenous drug users from finding their veins.

MC: It reminded me of these old Nativity scenes where you’ve got a Mother and Child, and the Child has this little orange glow around it, this aura of spirituality that is protecting it and making it special. I think that this is probably some kind of contemporary equivalent; you’ve got this little baby and instead of glowing with an orange light, it’s kind of a cold blue.

LB: The way the light turns the skin opaque is also very de-humanising.

MC: I’ve always suspected that these Madonna and Child paintings aren’t so much about Jesus anyway; they are about the specialness of birth and the preciousness of a new born baby—Jesus is just a motif for childbirth. So when this baby glows up there like a little Jesus, then, yes, it is special, but then all babies are special.

LB: Madonna and Child paintings are also about the sheer power and magic of images; how this often weirdly-depicted Baby is able to conjure up all that mystery, awe and devotion. It seems to me that a lot of your work addresses the way that we are still in thrall to images, and dominated and manipulated by them.

MC: I’m interested in perception generally, I guess, because it’s what a lot of art is about. Then with the baby piece there’s this idea that drugs are supposed to change your perception of things, but when you go into these toilets they are using a kind of light that will change your perception in such a way that prevents you from changing your perception with drugs. Which is a kind of strange way of going about things.

LB: I read somewhere that you grew up in a religious household with no TV. Did that give you a heightened sense of the deliciousness of images? So many of your works still present the moving image as tantalising, forbidden fruit that can be snatched away if you get too close.

MC: TV was just a box of magical wonders, I would have given anything for a TV, but, of course, they’re not that brilliant. When you’re a kid that twinkling box that you can see through someone’s window in the front room seems like the promise of everything...The thing about images is that we project so much onto them—I can remember getting a little 3-D image out of a cornflakes packet when I was a kid and just holding that thing for weeks, because it seemed to have so many magical qualities.

LB: Your other works both at Lux and Modern Art continue your practise of using old found objects—a firescreen, a cabinet, a cracked urn—and splicing them with the most up-to-date projection techniques. Is that to make the images look more magical, more alluring?

MC: It’s just always disappointing seeing things on monitors, because it’s like having some preconditioned frame—like being a painter and having to go to Mitsubushi to get your frame. You make your video, and then suddenly it’s framed by something that contextualises it in a way that maybe you don’t want, so I’m trying to do this thing of integrating video with sculpture, I mean, why not? I think that video projection lends itself really well to fitting in with other objects and the connection of the two together seems to evoke some kind of other thing—the old rubbing up against the new, and the moving rubbing up against the inanimate.

LB: But an inanimate object that nonetheless carries its own history and associations.

MC: They’re all things that I’ve found in junk or antique shops, that have lived some kind of life, and then have been left as a kind of skeleton. So I’m putting some life, some movement, back in there.

LB: Whether you are showing a glimpse of a belly dancer in a cracked jug, three-dimensional photographs of gorgeous, naked young boys in derelict, collapsing rooms, or a homeless person lying under the glass dome of a Victorian-style snowstorm, both your choice and presentation of imagery seems deliberately to lure us—by whatever means—and then deliver a sting in the tail. Your images always look enticing, however dodgy the subject matter.

MC: I think, generally, it’s a formal thing about trying to make a piece of work that’s interesting on any level. The paintings from the past that I look at also flip a little bit that way, you look at something that’s executed absolutely beautifully, but the subject matter might be disturbing and you’re caught somewhere in the middle. The baby in Shoreditch Town Hall should look very serene and beautiful and then it’s as if one were to say, “Hold on a minute—is this what we’ve come to, when babies get changed under this kind of light?” So it’s chilling as well.

LB: You also like playing with the mawkishly sentimental and the kitsch.

MC: Definitely yes. For my show in New York this month I’m showing these big 3-D transparencies, five by four feet, of dead Nazis, taken from an account I read about Berlin at the end of the war when a lot of officers got women, either wives or prostitutes, and then had a last party of champagne and food and sex in underground bunkers and then they all dropped cyanide. A Russian diplomat discovered all these guys in a bunker and wrote about this horrible tableau of half-copulating, half-naked couples among the debris of food and drink. And I set that up with actors in a London penitentiary and photographed them in 3-D which is itself a very kitschy kind of medium.

LB: But the images from that series that I have seen also have a kind of chilly restraint that makes them all the more decadent—and compelling.

MC: I got sick of people doing heavy-handed art that was supposed to be shocking because it used overtly violent material and I think one of the things that I found more offensive on the TV and in the media was this mawkish sentimentality which is being used to sell everything. Because people are, as you say, still susceptible to it and that in a way is more insulting. With the Nazis it was more insulting that they sold it as some sentimental trip and that, for me, would be a more interesting thing to show than violence, death and blood. Maybe we’re immune to that, I don't know.

LB: I get the feeling that, although you do not take a critical stance, you still want us to question the ways in which we look at things, and face up to the ambiguity of our desire to look closer still.

MC: When I was growing up I tried to associate myself with a lot of political movements—I felt so outraged at how ugly the world was. And then, after so long, you realise that they are all little pyramid power struggles and its completely ineffectual. And so I am trying to sneak a little bit of that into my work because there’s no other way to let it out. I think maybe a way of doing it is by implicating myself in the first place, and saying: yes, looking at a picture of a homeless person or a starving person on TV, although it outrages me in a sense, also comforts me a little bit to know that I feel these emotions; I can empathise with this suffering and that makes me feel a little bit good about it because I can then feel that I’m charitable in some kind of patronising way...

LB: So do you feel disillusioned?

MC: I couldn’t say that I was disillusioned with images because I just love them so much. For some reason, looking through a camera at something or a picture of something is so much more pleasurable than looking at the thing itself, and a lot of the time the thing itself is of no importance until it has been documented in some way. I mean, why do we have to invent 3-D winking photographs when somebody can wink in front of you? It really is quite bizarre to be charmed by the organisation of chemicals on a bit of material.

Biography

Background: Born 1966 Nottingham; 1986-89 Goldsmiths’ College

Currently showing: Modern Art, London; Bonakdar Jancou Gallery, New York; Lux Gallery, London; Shoreditch Town Hall (four-day film screening)

Solo shows include: 1990: Riverside Studios. London; Karsten Schubert, London; 1993: Galerie Analix, Geneva; 1994: Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; 1995: Karsten Schubert Gallery, London (in association with Thomas Dane); Camden Arts Centre, London; 1997: Ridinghouse Editions, London; Lisson Gallery, London; 1999: Galerie Arte Moderna, Bologna; 2000: Museum of Contemporary Art, Warsaw

Mixed Shows Include: 1988: “Freeze”, London; 1990: “Modern medicine”, Building One, London; 1993: Aperto, Venice Biennale; 1995: “Corpus delicti: London art in the 90s”, Kunstforeningen, Copenhagen; “Minky manky”, South London Gallery; British Art Show (Touring); “Brilliant! New art from London”, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis; 1996: “Life live”, Musée de l’art moderne, Paris; 1997: “Sensation”, Royal Academy London (touring); 1998: “Secret Victorians: contemporary artists and their 19th-century vision”, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol (touring); 2000: “Greenhouse effect” Serpentine Gallery; “Sex and the British”, Thaddeus Ropac Gallery, Salzburg and Paris.