Standing water is stagnant water, a still surface containing poisonous depths. It’s the perfect image for British multimedia artist Matt Collishaw’s debut exhibition in Prague, which is a darkly glinting showcase of the artist’s fascination with things that lurk beneath the surface.
Exhibition organisers often wax lyrical about how an artist’s work is ‘organically suited’ to their exhibition space, and the Galerie Rudolfinum is no exception, but here it’s actually true. Collishaw’s photographic prints, installations, paintings and large and small scale visual projections fit hand-in-glove with the tall, august amplitude of the gallery’s neo-Renaissance space. Amid the dim lighting, and silence only disturbed by the occasional creak of parquet, Collishaw’s works are imbued with weight and solemnity. Though they tend to have these qualities already.
Last Meal On Death Row, Texas 2011 consists of thirteen glossy, high-finish photographs of the foodstuffs chosen by prisoners before their execution. These quietly imposing compositions could be still lifes by Dutch Old Masters, such is their pathos and dignity. Against jet black backgrounds the foods chosen by the condemned men take on an articulate intensity, hinting at a range of attitudes and characteristics. A few of them involve meat, which looks horribly uncooked, an indicator of the violence which brought them to death row and the institutional violence they’re about to have inflicted upon them. One is simply a large silver bowl overflowing with breakfast cereal with a jug of milk standing by, as if its recipient were facing nothing but a particularly busy morning; another consists of a selection of vegetarian items with two glasses of milk, as if we were being invited to share this healthy meal option – grim humour polished to a high finish. And then there’s the glass of red wine and Communion wafer, stunningly simple, richly ascetic, and laced with irony if one notes the hinted at reference to the Catholic belief in transubstantiation.
Suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the same room is Collishaw’s digital recreation of Francis Bacon’s painting of Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X. This is a shimmering, dripping curtain, a waterfall of variously sized pixels within which the seated Pope slowly appears and disappears, but never quite coalesces clearly. As God’s representative on earth, with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, this potential source of consolation for the condemned men remains teasingly out of reach.
Also teasingly out of reach are the shadows which drift like the shades of the dead across the marble dock of Island of the Dead. This is Collishaw’s homage to Arnold Bocklin’s deeply evocative Symbolist conception of the island-gateway to Death, completed in 1883. It’s a large-scale, gently animated version of the painting on a two-way mirror suspended from the ceiling, allowing alternative views from either side. As we watch, the sunlight on the ancient limestone cliffs surrounding the deep well of slowly waving cypress trees slowly fades, and shadows drift across the little island like sharp black clouds, among them what look like figures walking along the dock; night gathers and the island is almost completely sunk in darkness. The sun rises and the cycle of life continues.
Sudden death is a far less poetic affair and takes on an almost savage form in Insecticide, Collishaw’s series of large colour photographs of the smashed bodies of butterflies. Less is definitely more here, with just six from the series along the widely spaced walls. Each is an extraordinary meshing of beauty and violence, vivid colour, form and fluttering delicate grace reduced to a pulverized, broken mass in an instant. Reduced and yet these mashed bodies explode outwards with the diamantine grace of star-clusters and planetary nebulae. The very idea of smashing what look like rare butterflies and photographing them – did Collishaw himself commit this lepidopteral holocaust? – is horrible. But is it any more horrible than gassing them and sticking them on pins to be admired under glass? It could be argued that Collishaw is attacking the violence inherent in the collecting of insects and other animal species, and there is something brutally honest in his smashed butterflies whose destruction provides us with a new, rare form of beauty.
Collishaw’s art excels in these blendings and combinations of feeling. He shakes the standing water to create new, if darker patterns we’re not entirely sure we should be enjoying. In Ultraviolet Angel he takes William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting of an angel, L’Amour Moille, from 1891, and highlights its coy hermaphroditic charm with a pair of neon striplights. The painting is transferred onto a piece of glass and back-lit, or rather back-glared, by the twin strip-lights, with their wiring visible, turning Bouguereau’s supposed study of ideal innocence into what could be a neon advertisement for an erotic night club.
The ideal of innocence, a favourite of the Victorians, and one we still pay lip-service to, is also a favourite theme of Collishaw’s. One of the smaller rooms in the gallery is dedicated to his interpretation of the Greek myth of Ganymede. Zeus, Father of the Gods, fell in love with this most handsome of youths, and, taking the form of an eagle, carried Ganymede off to be a cupbearer to the gods. Leaving the boy’s parents a pair of white horses in compensation. The myth was interpreted erotically by Correggio and more ideally by other Renaissance artists, but Collishaw’s more realistic version, a video projection, is more youth-kidnap than youth-worship, with the pale naked body of the boy struggling faintly in the grip of a rather owl-like eagle. The image is blurred, and in spite of, or because of, what look (‘production-values is plural so we use singular verb) like consciously cheap ‘production-values’, it has a disturbing power and tactility about it. The image can also be viewed in transit when it passes over an ornate marble font and is captured in miniature form, allowing us to bring it into focus ourselves and to see the struggle of god-eagle and unwilling youth from different angles. We’re invited to participate in the kidnap, led on by our perhaps prurient curiosity.
But it’s we ourselves who are examined by an ‘innocent’ child in Children Of A Lesser God, a large acrylic painting influenced by another myth, this one the Roman foundation myth of Romulus and Remus. On a large tasteless, flower-patterned sofa, backed by a chain-fence, two very young naked children, almost babies, are sleeping. Two pedigree-type but unmistakably feral dogs, one with teeth savagely bared confront us, protecting the children on their blood-spattered sofa; the sofa is surrounded by the dogs’ lunch, torn remnants of chickens. One child is sleeping with his back to us, but on closer inspection the one facing us is awake, peering at us through slitted eyes. It’s certainly no innocent, guiless look, assuming that anyone suckled by wolves or savage household pets could be innocent. But, Collishaw’s picture coldly reminds us, empires of every kind are founded on the milk of human violence.
And violence has been one of the great perennial inspirations of classic art too. All Things Fall is an installation based on Ippolito Scarsella’s Sixteenth Century painting The Massacre of the Innocents, a depiction of the Gospel story of how King Herod had all the male children up to two years of age murdered after hearing the bad news of the birth of Jesus. The installation, which has a whole room to itself, is a lovingly detailed zoetrope in the form of a baroque temple which slowly begins to revolve to a blurring speed until it stops. A strobe light then switches on and the more than three-hundred figures within the temple come to furious life. Babies are snatched from mother’s‘ arms, children are clubbed by men with daunting physiques and Herculean-sized clubs, children are thrown like sacks of flour out of windows. All at manic, lightning-like speed. It’s both bleakly hilarious and horribly laughable.
This review doesn’t reflect the order of the curator Petr Nedoma’s arrangement, or all of the exhibits. But one is almost propelled through the rooms, riding a wave of disorientation and disturbance alternating with relative calm and reassurance. Deliverance, a room dedicated to the Chechen terrorist attack on a children’s school in Beslan, Russia in 2004, was something I could only dip into tentatively for seconds at a time, because of the violent strobe effects. In contrast, Single Nights is a sample of the very soothing paintings Collishaw did of single mothers nursing their babies at night, seated before a candle on a wooden table. But All Things Fall is the last exhibit before the exit. Collishaw likes us to leave his standing water shaken, not stirred.
Alšovo nábřeží 12
110 00 Praha 1
until 8th July 2018
Images courtesy of the artist, Galerie Rudolfinum and Blain I Southern