Mat Collishaw: Retrospectre at the BFI

Posted on September 15, 2010


London 26th February to 9th May 2010

The immense beauty and force of nature is placed beside both man’s inexhaustible cruelty and his lack of power in the strangely beautiful and atmospheric ‘Retrospectre’, Mat Collishaw’s newly commissioned work at the BFI. The piece was inspired by the Armenian-Georgian filmmaker and artist Sergei Paradjanov (1929-90), to whom the BFI has dedicated a month-long festival.

Collishaw, part of the so-called yBa generation, is attracted to all things forbidden or taboo, such as child prostitution and torture. However, he aestheticizes his subjects so that they instantly draw the viewer in and, despite their cruelty, make it impossible to look away. In his piece Deliverance, 2008, for exmaple, he showed photographs taken after the Beslan school siege of people leaving the school, walking away from the barrels of the guns and into the barrels of the cameras. As in ‘Retrospectre’, many of the images are at the same time forceful, cruel and beautiful.

Paradjanov, whose films are mesmerizing and highly symbolic, is also known for his unusual use of beauty in his works. He was jailed twice, first briefly for ‘homosexual acts’ – illegal under soviet law – then a second time for filve years for several minor incidents, mostly fabricated. After his arrest he was not allowed to make films for 15 years. During this time he began to produce collages and assemblages.

It is imaginable that Collishaw used these collages as a starting point for his new work, which consists of a large wooden construction made from assembled decorative window and door frames, onto which films are back-projected. Each window is used as a screen, resulting in many film-fragments being visible at the same time, dissolving into one another and at points taking over the whole surface. The many film sequences are short and change quickly, giving the work a collage-like appearance. Each of these sequences is accompanied by different sounds, which have a strong influence on the atmosphere of the work. A landscape at night, lit up repeatedly by lightning, is accompanied by the loud noise of rain and thunder, coming from four speakers, one in each corner of the room, wrapping the viewer into the sounds. Several animals appear in the different screens: dogs, wolves and white horses, barking, howling and whinnying.

The atmosphere changes when the room goes completely quiet and candles appear on the screens, their flames blown out after a little while and filling the screens with smoke. The smoke turns into water, then a peacock, then the screen is divided into an erupting volcano and a wild sea. The elements of fire and water stand next to each other, each in their most powerful form. The mood is fearful, the beauty of nature is put in a stark contrast to its fearful force. Collishaw plays with this shift of atmospheres, first giving an appearance of peaceful safety which is destroyed suddenly and replaced by a feeling of danger and pain. Birdsong and images of summer landscapes are slowly replaced by images of wolves and dogs in cages, as well as a cow being slaughtered and a sheep dying in a pool of blood. The sound of different animals howling and crying creates an eerie and uncomfortable atmosphere. A strong sense of human cruelty is suggested, the nature of beauty abruptly destroyed.

Paradjanov suffered under the cruelty of other humans for most of his life, being imprisoned under false charges then prevented from working due to censorship laws. Many of his films are about survival and human struggle, for example Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1964, which is heavily symbolic and employs a great deal of religious imagery. This, again, can be found in ‘Retrospectre’, the candles and carvings on the wooden structures being but a couple of examples. Collishaw sees himself as still being in the pursuit of spirituality, having previously turned against Christianity after growing up in a small Christian sect – the Christadelphians – where television was forbidden and women were not allowed to be educated. He considers art a modern religion: ‘I don’t think there’s another place apart from a church where you’re allowed to meditate about your place on earth, and think about questions deep and frivolous.’

The insignificant power of men next to nature is visible in every shot. The lesson learnt seems clear: anything man-made is cruel and destroys the beauty of nature. The only exception would be the candles, burning peacefully. But even they are blown out.

Teresa Reichert (originally published 5th May 2010)