Mat Collishaw, Hysteria @ Freud Museum
by Stuart Semple
(originally published by Art of England)
Before the idea of curation and curators were banded about in contemporary art circles James Putnam was plying his trade over at the British museum in the Egyptian department , making his own work out of hours, and trying to convince major institutions to look at ancient objects as the works of art that they were in their day. You see to James, all art was once contemporary, and heís got a point.
He never really won the battle in bringing ancient things into a contemporary environment, rather he bought the contemporary environment into the museum with resounding success when he introduced a whoís who of contemporary artists including Francesco Clemente, Stephen Cox, Brian Eno, Andy Goldsworthy, , Marc Quinn, Kiki Smith, and Kan Yasuda to the Egyptian department back in 1995.
Since the 90s , after being called upon by the Freud museum to help with authentication of their collection ďas nobody had really looked at itĒ, James has been co-ordinating a contemporary program there. Having already opened up Freudís house to artists including Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas, Richard Clegg and Tim Noble and Sue Webster, I met up with James on the first day of Mat Collishawís new exhibition ĎHysteriaí.
Above Freudís iconic couch hangs a photo in which French neurologist Jean Caracot shows his students a woman during a hysterical fit. Opposite Collishaw conjures memory and fantasy as three tree trunks sprout from the ornate rug. On top of these a fiberglass records spin, their grooves reminiscent of the historical recording device of it trees; their own rings. Birdsong subtly fills the room as our hysterical patientís subconscious collides with reality. From this point two worlds open up: our inner world becomes visible.
Until the 17th century hysteria was believed to be a particularly female problem, supposedly stemming from a uterus that hasnít received enough sexual intercourse. As such, a large portion of the works utilize antique photographic images of women in various contorted states. In this day and age they look melodramatic, over emphasized, creepy and in many ways unbelievable. However, perhaps in some ways they werenít genuine depictions in the first place for a variety of reasons.
Collishaw performs as the hidden cloaked magician with his arsenal of tricksy new world electricals. Even his anamorphosis work is brought bang up to date with a beautifully fabricated stainless steel cylinder and re-working of Victorian side table. Itís more gritty than that though, behind this slickness is the darkness and depth thatís always been there with Collishaw, a bravery and a bombastic attitude that rams the point home.
An old wormery has a series of archival photographs projected on itís glass surface, the holographic quality leading to the playful illusionary nature of the Victorian parlour game, the papaís ghost type trick that so excites Collishaw throughout his oeuvre.
As we continue the tour James quietly informs me that many of the so called hysterical photos from the time were probably played up for the camera, and standing there watching the giant projections that linger on the phosphorescent cabinet before being reflected on the opposing wall and disappearing into the far reaches of recollection, one is instantly struck by the freakish, theatrical nature of this depiction of hysteria, a sort of pseudo demonic exorcism under the guise of scientific enquiry. For me this is also one of the strongest examples of how these contemporary interventions speak with the architecture of the places they inhabit. In this case freezing a moment of time, as the museum itself does for Freuds memory. However, here rather than some forced film set, with itís knick knacks neatly arranged a la John Lennonís white piano with round glasses placed just so, or some set designers vision of Baconís studio, this place feels fluid and lived in, even now.
A whiff of underworld vice has always hovered around Matís works, often pushing taboo areas of hidden Victoriana to the extreme by shifting the envelope to the present day with cutting edge production methods. Heís not hiding anything, rather heís on the quest to make it undeniably clear, and this is crystal high definition.
On the staircase, large photos of crushed butterflies in glorious colours, like vibrant microscope slides, resemble broken childhood dreams, a regressed violence that spills onto these giant reflective surfaces, beautiful, fragile, and absorbing, capturing the last explosive climax of the creatures life; itís untimely death. This is where Collishaw comes into his own: we canít help being seduced by the colourful lusty saturation of those colours. Is it so very wrong to absorb beauty from suffering? He makes the point so eloquently and so concisely.
Julian Stallabrass once described Collishaw as the nastiest of the YBAís, and thatís somewhat fitting as we find in another corner an even darker side lurking. Childhood Ďbeating fantasiesí literally come to life, as we watch an animated version of Freudís eroticized aggression.
The centerpiece of the show has to be Collishawís zoetrope, in which several 3d sculptures come to life, as they spin and hit the right frequency it flicks away, personifying the clash between the past and the present, the static artifact and the present day, analogous to Jamesí curatorial process, the ancient looking artifacts are re-animated. A small impish child stabs a very lifelike snail, butterflies and birds flap, and a birds nestís eggs are mutilated at the hands of another child who smashes them with a club.
Through these smashed eggs, uteruses, and slimy snails being damaged Mat is asking us, the viewer, to analyze ourselves. Quickly one finds oneself shocked at just how twisted our inner thoughts are and all of a sudden weíre on the couch. The frightening thing is that Collishaw is our therapist.
The whole drama fittingly takes place in Freudís daughter Annaís bedroom. Anna spent her life conducting pioneering psychoanalytic work, especially with children. Both Sigmund and his daughter were interested in the cruelty impulse in children and its link to sexuality - Iím sure weíve all chopped a worm in half before to watch if it still wriggles or pulled the legs off a spider.
Thereís a difficult balancing act going on here in so many ways. Weíve got quite a conceptual contemporary artist having to be explicate enough to communicate with the Freud fan club, weíve got an environment that would seem at first the complete opposite of what an artist would normally require around their work, a huge chunk of white space. In fact, Freudís house is chock full of knick knacks and collections of things, that thereís every chance things could easily become lost. The balance works, and it works surprisingly well. Where one might expect some kind of tussle between old and new, we find a gentle swell, where Collishawís imagination bubbles from the surface of reality to subtly reanimate a cinder of cerebral archeological spark.
It occurs to me that the other invisible magician in the piece is actually James Putnam, this fleeting Svengali apparition is in the kitchen behind the museum representing an interface between an old world curator or keeper of objects, and an active dialogue with the present and perhaps in this case the future.
In another room what appears to be a picture frame becomes a two way mirror as womanís face appears in true Disney haunted house style from a hypnotic swirl of smoke. Itís easy to read a Freudian argument into almost anything: after all itís based on our deepest thoughts, that in many ways underpin our whole reality. However in this exhibition we get something truly symbiotic, we find ourselves starting to read the Collishaw perspective into the Freud universe. We could place almost any object here and instigate a Freudian reading: it would make the curator and artistís job infinitely simpler, but this isnít about an easy life. Itís a very genuine thread of investigation thatís grown out of Freudís legacy.
On chatting further to Putnam, it becomes increasingly obvious to me that through the introduction heís made between the artists heís worked with here and the Freud scholars at the museum, the artists have taken a huge wealth of inspiration thatís fed into the works ever since. Collishaw, like Lucas and Calle before him leaves stronger than he came in. Which strangely is the whole point of psychoanalysis isnít it? By getting to know ourselves better we become more connected to our whole being, ultimately somehow more resolved. I know from my visit that Iíve uncovered some parts of my subconscious that I didnít realize were there, I just hope I can get them back in the can without having to pay a fortune to sit on Matís couch.
For more information see: www.freud.org.uk