Mat Collishaw: Technology, The Abject, And The Divine

Mat Collishaw was born in 1966 in Nottingham, England. He was one of four boys in a family of Christadelphians, his father a dental technician, his mother later became a teacher.

From his childhood, spending hours on end sat drawing (his family had no television when he was growing up), Collishaw first attended Nottingham Trent University (then Polytechnic) before, In 1989, receiving his BFA from Goldsmith’s College, London.

His career began with the Freeze show, in which he exhibited his now-acclaimed work, Bullet Hole, alongside work from his contemporaries. The show was curated by Damien Hirst, one of Collishaw’s long-time friends.

Following graduation from Goldsmith’s, Collishaw’s next appearance was as part of the Ghost Photography: The Illusion of the Visible touring exhibition in Italy, curated by Stella Santacatterina.

From his first solo show in 1990, Collishaw has gone on to become one of the most prominent names within the YBA movement (Young British Artists). Along with his friendship with perhaps the most well-known YBA, Damien Hirst, Collishaw was also once in a relationship with Tracey Emin, and counts other YBAs, such as Sarah Lucas, amongst his friends.

One of the enduring tropes of Collishaw’s work is a sense of walking a tightrope between the abject and the alluring. The concept of the divine, of awe-inspiring, romantic beauty, feature prominently in his work, but on closer inspection, depict scenes of violence, horror, and decay. His pieces are both seductive and shocking, always with this wry mirror held up to the viewer: are you revolted, curious, or aroused?

“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.”  – Mat Collishaw

Collishaw is an artist strongly in touch with the influences of the old masters. He combines references to this classical legacy alongside contemporary dialogues, which is exemplified in his 2012 installation, End of Innocence, which presents a manipulated video reinterpretation of Francis Bacon’s own reappropriation of Velázquez’s Pope Innocent X:


View video: Mat Collishaw: End of Innocence (extended) from Minky Productions on Vimeo.

Collishaw is also fascinated by the Victorian era, often drawing uneasy parallels between the attitudes of the era with that of our own. For Collishaw, this era of scientific enlightenment and buttoned-up cultural propriety hid an inescapable dark side, one that he has regularly shone a light on in his work. Beneath the surface, the Victorian era was riddled with poverty, perversion, and blood-lust. In scenes that present the ornate, decorative aesthetics of the time, Collishaw imbues a subtle vision of this dark underbelly, reminding us of the undying persistence of humanity’s baser instincts.

Pope Innocent X to End of Innocent | Mat Collishaw

L to R: Valazquez, Bacon, Collishaw

Technology, Art, and the Divine

Mat Collishaw Eighth Day 2002

Mat Collishaw – Eighth Day (2002)

The artist’s predilection for revisiting the past within the contemporary aesthetic is often communicated through his use of materials. In End of Innocence, the original oil painting, a reinterpretation itself, is fragmented beyond recognition through the use of video projection. The deconstruction begun in Bacon’s work is brought to its logical conclusion, indeed its end, as technology smothers visual art, replacing paint strokes with pixels.

An earlier Collishaw work from 2002, Eighth Day, is another example of this interplay between technology, art, and the divine. Whilst End of Innocence took a painting of Pope Innocent X as its original source, Eighth Day presents a dark parody of the way the divine has historically been rendered in art. The title of the piece obviously evokes the Book of Genesis, but the image it portrays is an old black and white photograph of a lynching.

The photograph, a modern (indeed, Victorian) invention, has been reproduced as a mosaic of tiny tiles. The mosaic form was originally used in ancient times as a way to depict gods, saints and martyrs, to remind the viewer of the divine morality to which they must subscribe. Clearly, the image in Eighth Day parodies this notion to a grotesque degree. Finally, the viewer notices that all these tiny tiles give the image the appearance of a pixelated screen. What do these elements, when brought together, say of our modern technology in the context of art history and the divine?


Technology, as these examples have shown us, looms over the twilight world of Collishaw’s work. And, as we embark on a new phase of technological innovation, with the rise of virtual reality transforming the visual world, Collishaw is ready and waiting.

His latest exhibition, Thresholds, takes place at Somerset House in Spring 2017. In it, Collishaw revisits the Victorian era once more, this time in virtual reality.

Visitors to the exhibition stand within a plain, whitewashed room where tables and such are laid out bare. They are then given an HTC Vive VR headset, plugged into a laptop strapped to their back. Inside the virtual world, they explore the very first photography exhibition in 1839, 3D rendered in exquisite detail by VMI Studio.

The 1839 exhibition took place at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, a building that no longer stands.

Ghost-like auras in the virtual space will prevent visitors from bumping into one another, yet also imbue one with that eerie sense of stepping into an unfamiliar past. Those waiting to gain entry to the room will be able to view those inside wandering the blank space in helmets and backpacks through holes in the wall synchronised with paintings in the virtual space. Strangers’ eyes look on through the eyes of portraits, unbeknownst to those inside the virtual world seeing those portraits. Portraits that, without the headset, do not exist at all.

“There will be alternate levels of reality and unreality. This is a virtual reality of a virtual reality of reality,” says Collishaw.

Thresholds is running from 15th May 2017 to 11th June 2017 at Somerset House in London, and subsequently at:

  • Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery 17/06/2017- 03/09/2017
  • Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire 09/09/2017 – 29/10/2017
  • Bodleian Library, Oxford  09/03/2018 – 15/04/2018
  • National Media Museum, Bradford  09/07/2018 – 02/09/2018