Everything is black. Suddenly lights flash frantically and bright flowers and birds fly in front of your eyes. This is how the centrepiece of Mat Collishaw’s Centrifugal Soul is experienced at Blain Southern. It sounds awful, like an evening spent at a bad nightclub that you’d rather forget. The installation however, is utterly mesmerising.
Collishaw’s exhibition comprises installation, painting and sculpture, all of which has been plunged into darkness, meaning that our eyes are drawn to its light. In the centre of the first gallery space, Albion comprises a white, glowing oak tree. Like a skeleton, it appears as an x-ray and is barren of its leaves. Albion’s reflection is spread across the floor, as though it was stood by a lake, dwarfing the gallery space with its scale and presence. The laser-scanned tree is a projection of the centuries-old Major Oak in the Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, which has been propped up by scaffolding since the Victorian era due to its trunk being hollow and rotten to the core. Where the country oak remains stationary, Collishaw has breathed new life into his Mayfair apparition, which rotates slowly in the gallery space.
The ghost-like display makes a little more sense on understanding Collishaw’s work and collaboration with psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who is cited by the gallery as saying: ‘we put too much of ourselves into our product façades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is both publicly visible and instantly loveable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle.’ This quotation appears to be a direct explanation of both Albion and the tree positioned in Nottingham: Albion takes up a vast portion of the gallery space, in a reflection that is effectively empty of physical matter, whereas the Major Oak that appears strong and colossal from the outside, is rotten and hollow inside.
Surrounding the monumental tree is a series of birds. The animals do not move, instead of flying towards Albion’s branches they are chained to perches against graffitied walls. The colourful animals almost blend into their painted backgrounds in a tromp l’oeil effect, but you can still see them clearly if you look close enough. The outer edges of Collishaw’s tethered birds quite literally blend into their surroundings in an extension of Miller’s comments on the concentration of our perceived exterior.
Collishaw’s exploration into illusion and perception culminates behind the wall in which Albion and its neighbouring birds have been positioned. The Centrifugal Soul is a dizzying zoetrope of birds, flowers, strobe lighting and movement. The centrepiece creates the illusion of motion through rapid rotation and stroboscopic light in the form of a pre-film animation device. The gorgeous display of blue and pink bowerbirds and birds of paradise that dance for the viewer amongst the sparkling light is in fact, the performance of elaborate mating rituals. The concept has been drawn from Miller’s notion that evolution has evolved through natural selection, thus explaining our drive for self-promotion and visual acceptance. The word centrifugal means ‘moving or tending to move away from the centre.’ The common understanding of the ‘soul’ is of a spirit that lies to the heart of our being. The title of this work may be an experiment into what would happen if we reacted on Miller’s comments about placing too much emphasis on our exterior. Instead, Collishaw opts to focus on the internal, through moving the visually perceptible exterior into the realm of the invisible interior. This explains why the rainbow-coloured birds that flaunt their beauty to the viewer inside the zoetrope, are masked by strong strobe lighting.
Through the manipulation of light and darkness, Collishaw’s exhibition at Blain Southern asks the viewer to reflect on how they both perceive and promote their exterior appearance. From the birds trapped by their surroundings – both physically by their chains and visually through the blending of their feathers to their prisons – to the rotting Albion and the reproduction rituals displayed in the zoetrope, Collishaw’s artworks together with Miller’s psychology, beautifully query our understanding of the exterior. It seems fitting that, an exhibition centred on the problematic emphasis of the façade, is so visually alluring at first sight.
The Centrifugal Soul is on display at Blain Southern until 27 May
The exhibition precedes Thresholds, a new installation launching at Photo London, Somerset House 18 May – 11 June