Soviet cinema revolutionary inspires hypnotic Mat Collishaw show at BFI Southbank

By Kirstie Brewer | 11 March 2010
A photo of a dimly lit screen through which a light blue horse's head can be seen

Exhibition: Mat Collishaw - Retrospectre, BFI Southbank, London, until May 9 2010

Contemporary artist Mat Collishaw certainly knows how to seduce his modern day audience - by using lots and lots of television sets.

His latest mesmerising installation is in response to the visionary work of the late Georgian-Armenian film director Sergei Paradjanov, who is the subject of a festival at the BFI.

The project, titled Retrospectre, is aptly described by the artist as "Paradjanov for the channel-hopping generation".

In other words, he uses the motifs and style of Paradjanov but speeds things up a notch, creating something so succinct and visually arresting that even those with the shortest attention span can digest it and, better still, understand it. Phew.

A photo of a dark screen with light blue figures behind it

Collishaw calls Retrospectre "Paradjanov for the channel-hopping generation"

While the installation is defined by Collishaw's very distinctive style, the fairytale world he creates poetically captures the life and works of Paradjanov.

In the 1960s and 1970s Paradjanov broke the rules of Soviet cinema - which would only tolerate "socialist realist art" - and defiantly invented his own cinematic style.

He swapped the uniform tractors and brown fields for rich visual imagery, steeped in religious and folkloric iconography.

In response, Collishaw includes video footage, both existing and recently shot in Armenia.

He draws on the viciousness of beauty and nature; a preoccupation both artists share. Paradjanov's trademark style of making films in which every shot resembles a collage is reflected in Collishaw's dramatic sequencing, and it takes several viewings to take everything in.

A photo of a screen with blue light streaming through it

Beauty and violence are juxtaposed in the show

The footage gathers momentum, building from the serene and idyllic into a crescendo of violence, noise and suffering.

Most distressing are the caged wolves and lions the artist filmed in an Armenian zoo, which could be read in reference to Paradjanov's own imprisonment.

Cruelty is set in stark contrast to the stunning beauty of the peacock which takes centre stage in the project.

"Paradjanov was a larger than life, colourful character," observes Collishaw.

"He was like a peacock and also like a lion. That's why I wanted to make reference to these creatures in the film."

A battle between good and evil, the sacred and the profane is instantly apparent. The rows of screens are framed by an enormous wooden shrine, assembled from abandoned windows, two-way mirrors and an altarpiece bought on eBay.

Primitive elements like fire and water feature strongly in Retrospectre, and there is a sense of something mystic and age-old.

The shrine structure and overall ambience of the installation invites the kind of contemplation you find through being in a church.

But ironically, Collishaw uses television, YouTube, eBay and even a rubber chicken to create this desired effect.

He projects cutting-edge technology onto the old, abandoned relics of the past, reanimating them and inviting you to reconsider their value and place in society today - an interesting idea worth exploring.

Collishaw reckons the project is "a bit like what you experience on a trip to Currys".

"When I was a kid I didn't have a TV," he explains. "So when we went to Sainsbury's I would run to that section and watch the rows of little flickering televisions, each showing a different channel, and get my fill."

There is certainly a hypnotic allure to the way the images and sounds are projected. The use of framing devices allows the camera to lock in on a subject and speak for itself.

Constant flitting from image to image and the use of mirrors turns television, a familiar source of comfort and entertainment, into something displaced and fragmented.

The projections may resemble a folkloric fairytale, but Collishaw – an artist renowned for his shock tactics – lures you into a realm which is all too real.

"The world contains all kinds of dark matter," he argues, although I still can't help wondering whether the bloody animal sacrifices and violence are necessary.

"It would be very odd to leave this out of an artwork which is supposed to reflect the world we live in."

Programme of screenings and events accompanies the exhibition. Visit the show online for full listings and to book.

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