The last supper, the mother and child, the massacre of the innocents – Mat Collishaw’s subjects are epic and enduring. His survey exhibition at New Art Gallery Walsall pulls together works from various bodies of research from 1996 to 2014 in photography, video and sculpture. Each one packs a dark and dramatic punch.
Take, for instance, a series made in 2011 titled Last Meal on Death Row, Texas. Thirteen photographs are displayed here, each meticulous recreations of the last suppers of prisoners awaiting execution. The photographs take formal inspiration from the subject, arrangement and lighting of vanitas ormomento mori paintings – contemporary and politically resonant reminders of the extreme fragility of life. That each of Collishaw’s photographs of fried chicken, melon, cereal and ham sandwiches are individually titled with the name of the prisoner drives home the subject – not death as an abstract concept or a historical narrative but as a real, personal thing.
Collishaw’s works are, of course, riddled by death. The Venal Muse (2012), a series of six exotic flowers made in resin and painted to look like flesh and the Bond-esque video work Auto-Immolation (2010), of an orchid blooming with flames, foreground his distinctive approach to the depiction of the body’s decay. The digitally manipulated photographs of his well-known Insecticide series follow this strand. Such symbols carry potency but death in a more literal form can be found in other of the exhibition’s works.
The installation of projected photographs titled Deliverance (2008) includes media images of the siege of School Number One in Beslan, North Ossetia, in which 334 people, many of them children, were massacred. The haunting images appear in Collishaw’s installation via intermittent lighting, phosphorescent paint and twisting projectors that bring isolated images into focus, much like the lighting of his mid-century forensic police negatives in his tandem exhibition at the Library of Birmingham. It goes without saying that these images of Beslan find urgent reverberance with so much of the media-channelled acts of violence from across the world.
Deliverance makes a disconcerting connection with Collishaw’s large-scale zoetrope piece All Things Fall (2014) too. In this work, again lit intermittently, a series of 3D printed models of men whipping children and raping women are animated through the rotations of the sculpture. Staccato movements build speed until a “frenzied orgy of violence” is produced. This is Collishaw’s recreation of King Herod’s Biblical infanticide – a sculpture spectacular in detail and delivery; harrowing in subject.
There are fragments of hope in the exhibition, though. The artist’s Single Mothers (2007) series of c-type images and Children of a Lesser God (2007), a transparency on LED box, are images that celebrate life in difficult circumstances. Single Mothers, chiaroscuro-shot photographs of mothers and babies, are portraits of love and care in line with art historical depictions of the virgin and child but imbued with political messages of a positive kind.Children of a Lesser God presents a modern-day Romulus and Remus – plump, naked babies guarded by vicious-looking Alsatian dogs – thriving and happy, despite all odds.
Mat Collishaw continues to 10 January 2016 at New Art Gallery Walsall.
Review by Anneka French, commissioned by Photomonitor. Published 18 December 2015.