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Green Light in the City

"Bring Back Mat" - How Artist Mat Collishaw Re-Connected With Nottingham

21 June 13 photos: Helen Gellion
interview: Wayne Burrows

We speak with Matt at Backlit Studios to talk zoetropes, myth-making and the crucial influence of Wollaton Hall...

The campaign run by Backlit for Museums at Night had the slogan “Bring Back Mat,” an intention to reconnect you with the Nottingham art scene. Is that an idea that interests you, coming back after so long away?
I definitely thought it would be interesting. I do come back this way quite often for things like Christmas or a family anniversary, but I’ve not had any links to the art scene here since the mid-eighties. From what I understand there’s an opening pretty much every night and it’s a happening city on that front. But it’s been thirty years since I left.
You’re currently based in Camberwell, is that right?
I have an old pub there, which is my studio and the flat above it is where I live with my son. It’s a perfect live-work environment. I did my foundation course at the old Trent Poly and then got a place at Goldsmith’s for my degree.
That Goldsmith’s course is now fairly legendary, with Freeze (1988) now considered the ground zero of the Young British Artists. Did it feel like something important at the time?
No. None of us had any money and we were mostly just working to keep going. So we thought, “well, sod them lot in the art world, let’s do it ourselves.” It’s strange seeing how it’s been mythologised. The Freeze exhibition was not well attended, we’d get three people a day coming to this desolate place in the middle of nowhere in Docklands, so there’d be me or Damien or Simon sitting in a chair in the middle of a cold, damp room all day, just to get people to have a look. Now you read about it as if it was this place where everything was going on and it was all happening, but it wasn’t like that at the time. Nobody seemed interested or commented on it and my work (Bullet Hole, 1988) ended up rotting and rusting away in a crate outside after the show finished.
You’ve talked about your upbringing in Nottingham being religious, has that been an influence?
Yes, it was. I used to go to Sunday school at the Russell Youth-Club just over the road from where we’re sitting right now, in fact. Looking back, it was a rich upbringing because it filled my head with very particular kinds of ideas and images. The Old Testament is completely soaked in blood, violence and damnation. It’s got a very rich texture to it, especially when you compare it to It’s A Knockout or The Noel Edmonds Show and whatever else other kids were soaking up at the time.
A lot of nineties art was talked about in terms of shock value but those dark textures go back a long way. There are also a lot of connections to Victorian styles in your work.
When I started doing things with elements of the Victorian in them it was because it was the least fashionable aesthetic I could find. In the mid-nineties it was all about being modern, clean glass and steel everywhere, so I wanted to do the opposite and the Victorian-era seemed to have a morbid feel that wasn’t dissimilar to what I was doing anyway. It was also my interest in the birth of photography. A lot of images from that time are almost necrophilic because the emulsion on the daguerreotypes is dissolving and there’s a sense of spirits and psychic activity, which were all flourishing in that era.

A piece of yours that’s often reproduced is the self-portrait as Narcissus (1990) gazing into a puddle. It can seem these things were always in the work.
As an artist, you find subject matter you want to work with and once you’ve found something, you work that seam. I started making pictures of me catching fairies, then extended that to haunted wardrobes, where surveillance mirrors created optical illusions or hidden Arcadian landscapes. That led me to other Victorian devices from before TV and film, zoetropes and magic lanterns.
You seem especially interested in smoke and mirrors; the way conjurors and psychics used reflections and distractions to trick audiences into seeing things that weren’t really there.
It’s about creating something for a viewer to believe in that doesn’t have the kind of integrity you might want it to have: a chimera.
You can also see the influence of Victorian natural history in things like Insecticide (2006 – 2009).
My interest is about the compression of three dimensions into two, which is what happens when you make an image, when you make a painting or photograph of something in the real world. You copy it and put it on a flat surface. I’m literally squashing the insect into an image. There’s a sense of the sacrilegious in there, as well. Some religious cults believe it’s wrong to tread on or kill an insect, so when you blow these images up to the kind of scale I do they’re no longer tiny, insignificant things in the world. You look at them and see every miniscule fleck of powder, every hair and pustule, like there’s a whole universe in there. It’s as if you’re looking into the Milky Way with thousands and thousands of stars and finding the infinite in this finite little thing. To do that you explode it, you blow it apart and a galaxy opens. It’s an amazing thing to wonder at.
A bit like William Blake’s line about seeing Heaven in a grain of sand?
Indeed. I made a show in London recently of paintings of empty cocaine wraps called This Is Not An Exit (2012) and that was about how in all those sordid and crumpled scraps of paper were these tiny grains. I was trying to look at them as though each one was an abyss, a world inside this little bit of nothing.
When you were growing up here, were you familiar with the Natural History collections at Wollaton?
We used to go to Wollaton Park a lot. My uncle was a gamekeeper, he’d shoot foxes and squirrels, then take them to the taxidermist in the museum at Wollaton Hall. His real trade was as a wheelwright and carriage maker, so he used to build the beautiful carriages that horses pulled in Victorian times. Being around all that when I was growing up was a privilege and it probably has been an influence.
I gather you’ll be looking at zoetropes at Backlit for Museums at Night.
Yes, we’re going to do the lo-fi end, which works really well, it just takes a bit of extra effort. We’ll get some record decks, put circular platters on them and choose some objects: Plasticine, a Twix, anything you like. When we rotate the turntables and fire strobes at them we should get animation. It’s what I spent hours doing in my bathroom when I started out myself, but it’s also a way of bringing people together, something to do while we talk and strike up a bit of a relationship on the night.

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