Mat Collishaw flatters to deceive. His best known work takes the form of exquisite photographs of flowers whose petals, on closer inspection, have been electronically replaced by close-ups of human skin diseases. Alongside these are his video installations: in one example, a video projection onto an ornate free-standing vanity mirror, depicting a beautiful young girl brushing her long blonde locks, fades into an image of what might well be the same girl 75 years later, still brushing, brushing, brushing her hair. Elsewhere, it’s the deceptive power of the medium itself that interests Collishaw: an image of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison camp in Iraq is rendered in the form of a room-sized mosaic—in which a highly pixellated internet image provides the pattern for a craft form that originated in Persia, and provided the spoils of war in a different age.
Collishaw’s largest solo exhibition to date is located in the beautifully restored Inverleith House, and it comes at an important time for an artist who—amazingly—emerged from the epicentre of Young British Art without having been ripped apart by the media. How could Tracey Emin’s (now ex) long-term lover have avoided the same tabloid mauling that was the daily grind for Tracey, Damien, Sarah and Gillian for so much of the past decade? Maybe it is precisely because the work is so hard to pin down. It can be so wilfully artificial that it feels resistant, even at times slippery.
Looking at a projection of blurry photos of victims of Operation Barbarossa lying dead in the frozen Russian winter, you steel yourself for some grim thoughts about the atrocities of the German-Russian war in the early 1940s. But no sooner have you prepared yourself for this emotional onslaught, than the image literally fizzles and melts away, as if the transparency inside the slide projector has just been destroyed by the heat. Again and again a grimly fuzzy image bubbles into oblivion, just as its content is becoming clear. It is hard to trust your judgement in Collishaw’s work, because there’s always a sense that, once you succumb to the sheer power or beauty of what you first see, that emotional response will be undermined by the realisation that things are definitely not what they first seemed.
In the end Collishaw’s work frustrates because, despite its often very powerful ideas, it doesn’t allow the viewer enough room in the work to engage with the artist’s vision. Certainly, there’s a sense that Collishaw’s interests are sharply political. Yet by dickering about with the medium, he undermines the complexity of his message. Again and again he reminds us that what we see may not actually be the whole truth —but in the process each time he gives the impression that, when we get anywhere near his heartfelt convictions, he doesn’t in fact hold them at all.
Staring at the ‘Infectious Orchid’ photographs with their skin-diseased petals, I found myself trying to think of something other than the trite aphorism, ‘beauty is only skin deep’, and wishing I could get to an understanding of his passions that went a little deeper.
Nick Barley is editor of The List