Mat Collishaw is one of the key figures of the so-called Young British Artists who emerged in London in the late eighties. Collishaw took part in the exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection which opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997 and which, as the name suggests, was a sensation, attracting over 300,000 visitors. It was described by the BBC as a “gigantic success”, although it was also described as “a spectacle of gory images of severed limbs and explicit pornography”1.
Collishaw creates art that confronts issues of moral ambiguity with formally impressive and engaging imagery. By marrying references to art history, literature and the Victorian era with modern technology, the artist presents powerful images and objects that often recontextualise the impact of traditionally disturbing and sinister subjects.
As art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston explains, “it is a legacy from his childhood, or so he assumes. Born in 1966, he was the second of four boys raised in a council house in Nottingham. His parents were committed Christadelphians. Every Wednesday and twice on Sunday, young Collishaw attended the Bible study sessions of a religious denomination that appeared to disapprove of pretty much everything, from women’s education (his mother had to study in secret) to television sets, he emerged as an artist who, thanks to his upbringing, was looking for images that could carry viewers beyond the mundane. Over the course of more than three decades, this desire has led to dozens of imaginatively complex, often technically complicated and usually critically acclaimed pieces that tend to work, first, by delivering a visual gut punch before propelling the viewer into a different way of perceiving2.
His artwork in the Hortensia Herrero Art Center, Transformer, is inspired by the Fallas Festival in Valencia, one of her great passions. Collishaw set about researching the history of Valencia. As the artist states, “the Fallas seemed to me to be totally crazy, seeing what happens here with these huge ninots or figures of people like Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, or whoever, these kinds of love/hate political figures that are exhibited and then burnt. The whole event felt like a pagan festival, but it also incorporated the idea of celebrity, as a social media thing. So, I thought it was really interesting and I started doing a bit more research and going back hundreds of years to the origins of it, when the commercial craftsmen, the people who actually made things, needed light during the dark winter months, so they built these structures to hold their candles. And then, when spring comes, when it gets lighter in the evening, they don’t need them as much to work with, so they take them all out and throw them away. And there had to be some process to get rid of them, which was this burning, and the burning became a ritual because they were going through a transformation from the winter months to the spring months. Obviously, a crucial period in the pagan calendar. It is a time of rebirth when we start to go outdoors and plants start to grow. So, an important time when you depend on what grows and whether we will be able to eat for the next 12 months. And this gained momentum until children were going around knocking on people’s doors asking for small pieces with which to build objects or figures that could then be burned as part of the festival “3.
Collishaw incorporates real images of the fallas into this work along with others of flowers and butterflies that burn as a symbol of rebirth, of the purifying fire that renews everything, in a work of great sensuality.