The blind leading the visionary

Artist Mat Collishaw, whose recent work goes on show this week, is on a quest to find meaning in our increasingly chaotic world. Simon Grant met him
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The Independent Online

Mat Collishaw always gets lumped in with the YBA crowd. He went to Goldsmiths, is around the same age (40), but hasn't had a solo show in a public space in this country for five years. This is bizarre, considering that he is one of the most challenging and thought-provoking artists of his generation. It might have something to do with the nature of his work. It is not confessional, in-yer-face, headline grabbing stuff. Neither is its scale attractive to collectors like Saatchi. He makes video and photography, often displayed in claustrophobic environments like glass domes, that have morbid or unsettling undertones.

Mat Collishaw always gets lumped in with the YBA crowd. He went to Goldsmiths, is around the same age (40), but hasn't had a solo show in a public space in this country for five years. This is bizarre, considering that he is one of the most challenging and thought-provoking artists of his generation. It might have something to do with the nature of his work. It is not confessional, in-yer-face, headline grabbing stuff. Neither is its scale attractive to collectors like Saatchi. He makes video and photography, often displayed in claustrophobic environments like glass domes, that have morbid or unsettling undertones.

Collishaw's latest works - all of which take iconic paintings as their starting point - go on show this week as part of a group exhibition staged by the Lisson Gallery in a former industrial building in Covent Garden. Among them is the extraordinary video piece called Blind Date for which he took a 36-hour trip to Madrid to see Velazquez's Las Meninas - but blindfolded for the whole journey. Only when he arrived in front the picture did the blindfold come off. He looked at the picture for a few minutes, then the blindfold was put back on and he went back to London. Why? "I am fascinated by the game in which pictures can lead you into a whole world of desire," he says. "They have that kind of power over me. It is like being unable to deal with the real thing. I feel a kind of crisis, an anxiety, that you can't appreciate the real thing enough. It is the same experience with the "Mona Lisa". It is so used up as an image. You can't look at it any more. It is a disappointment. The inability for the picture to deliver what they promise is exciting. The desire is stimulated but you are left unsatisfied. In Blind Date by blindfolding myself I wanted to eliminate the periphery, to see the purity of the painting, even try to see it without the frame, just the painting."

It is a neat piece, but it highlights some interesting fears that the contemporary artist, not just Collishaw, has to deal with. Collishaw admits this piece is rooted in his preference for the "simplicity" of looking at reproductions in magazines. He prefers the representations of reality to the real thing, largely because he clearly feels threatened, confused and overwhelmed by being bombarded by images from all sides. Blind Date functions as a kind of test, to see whether he can shut out all these external influences, and enjoy the art for what it is. It is a common feeling. Are we not overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history as we wander around the National Gallery? In this context it is easy to see why certain art historians find rational picture interpretation such a cosy way of dealing with the enormity of emotion at work. Collishaw certainly feels vulnerable to this kind of overload, and his recent work seems to be a way of channelling all that unpredictable stuff, so much so that he makes sure he has little control. "In Blind Date, you are powerless in a way," he says. "It is like being held hostage, kidnapped by a picture."

Collishaw talks about anxiety and desire a lot, which could have something to do with his upbringing. He was brought up as a Christadelphian, a strict Protestant sect that dates back to Victorian times. They take the bible literally. For a young Mat growing up in Nottingham, this meant prayer meetings three times a week, no telly, and more terrible, no Christmas.

While he keen to stress that he "loves his parents" he says that it has had an effect on him. "I was brought up to believe in a kingdom of God, another world that, if we struggle, is attainable, and this world is merely a test. I used to believe that. But when you grow older you discover that certain things just don't add up."

Could it be that Collishaw's release from this strict repressive upbringing has led to a form of release that has is scared he can't control? Certainly it comes across that one side of him wants to indulge in excess, while another wants to be held in check. What it has given him is an overview of the world around him. Collishaw excels among his peers in his ability to put all this media imagery and cultural fluff to good use, rather than just hold up a mirror. He is good at questioning the problems of the here and now, what it is like to be an artist working, as he puts it, "in a decadent era, where we live with the death of the humanitarian dream". One video work in the forthcoming show hints at this. We see Collishaw on the toilet. There is an indiscriminate brown shape. The camera moves closer and reveals the outlines of Duccio's altarpiece of Madonna and Child. It is his comment, about how contemporary Catholic culture, amongst others, can see divinity in the crummiest of environments, that faith does have to be stuck in ancient symbolism. But it is also a kind of frustrated self-portrait, a self-reflective dig at his anxiety of seeing meaning in every image around him. Despite the scatology of this work, there is a sense of optimism. Despite the chaos, he feels it is worth trying. "No other species uses imagery like we do, to pass ideas around, to play games. It is a beautiful thing to be able to communicate like that. It leads you down all sorts of blind alleys and confusing labyrinths, but it is an entertaining journey."

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