Mat Collishaw first made his mark in 1997 in the milestone exhibition “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection” at the Royal Academy in London. In that show, he presented Bullet Hole (1988), a large photowork made up of 15 Cibachromes mounted on light boxes which together show a close-up of a gaping head wound. This notorious image established Collishaw’s penchant for using imagery that is at once viscerally shocking and strangely beautiful. Endowing his work with an allure both transcendent and carnal, he mixes contemporary subject matter with techniques and objects reminiscent of another era.

His latest video installation, retrospectre (2010), a work commissioned by the British Film Institute in London, was part of a celebration there of the late Georgian/Armenian director Sergei Paradjanov. Described by Federico Fellini as a “magician” of cinema, Paradjanov (1924-1990) is perhaps best remembered for the powerful films Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1968). Enlivened by psychedelic color schemes, Paradjanov’s films are rich with religious and folkloric symbols; the primal struggle between good and evil, particularly as manifest in nature, can often be felt in full force. Many of his films, however, were condemned by Soviet authorities for failure to conform to officially sanctioned Social Realism, and Paradjanov was imprisoned periodically throughout his career.

Retrospectre is a dramatic assemblage of roughly a dozen antique frames from windows, doors, mirrors and pictures, each fitted with mirrored glass. A monumental church altarpiece frame of 1860 stands at its center. Video imagery, including material Collishaw had shot previously and clips he found online, and also footage he took recently in Armenia, is rear-projected onto the mirrors, which makes all seem to float mysteriously. Sometimes a single image is divided among the screens; at other times, a multitude of images is distributed among them.

The 5-minute loop begins with darkness, followed by a single bird in flight visible on several screens, while a thunderstorm can be heard brewing in the distance. Suddenly, the screens darken again, and then those in the center are invaded by an oppressively large close-up of a horse’s head, nostrils flaring and eyes wild with fright. Thunder resounds while flashes of lightning appear on the periphery. In another sequence, various flickering candles, their trails of smoke channelling upward, are shown on multiple screens. This is followed by an assortment of sounds and pictures of nature that build to savage scenes of caged animals, which, Collishaw told me, “offer a reflection on Paradjanov’s own imprisonment.” The piece ends with a single image of a nightmarishly big owl gliding toward the center panel, its outstretched wings decidedly cruciform.
In addition to underscoring the ecclesiastic origins of the frame within which it is shown, this image is, perhaps, a final symbolic reference to Paradjanov’s work. Like Paradjanov, Collishaw is inclined to reveal the darkness lurking behind the surface poetry in religion, and in nature.

Photo: Mat Collishaw: Retrospectre, 2010, mixed-medium video installation, 5-minute loop; at BFI.