Mat Collishaw reflects on his spectral installation that excavates more than a millennium of local history
Bio sonar, or echolocation, is a hidden means used by several species to navigate space. Dolphins, wales and bats bounce sounds off objects, listening to their echo to determine distance, direction, speed and density. It is so keenly tuned with the latter, that they can detect miniscule prey from 5 metres away, avoiding wire as fine as hair in total darkness. Thankfully, these constant calls are often too high pitched for humans to hear, rendering them invisible.
Using technology to reveal what is hidden is a rich vein running through Mat Collishaw’s body of work. The British artist – who emerged alongside Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin out of Goldsmith’s College in the late 80s – began in sculpture, installations and photography, but in recent years has employed complex zoetropes, mechanised birds and emotive Ex Machina faces to interrogate recurring themes of atrophy and illusion. His latest installation, opening to the public this week, continues putting flesh to bone through modern tools. The grandly ambitious Echolocation is an eleven-metre-long, three-channel video projection that excavates more than a millennium of Kingston’s local history. Viewable at the Undercroft – the alleyway running between the Thames and All Saints Church – the projection recreates the original chapel of All Saints using Lidar, or laser scanning, an advanced method similar to echolocation. The result is a striking spectre steeped in ingenious references, in which historical free-association coalesce and overlap. The chapel was the ancient coronation site of several Saxon kings, including Athelstan, the first king of a unified England in 925. Kingston is also a bat conservation area, and the animated animals that circle round the chapel are in homage not only to Lidar, but the work of Eadweard Muybridge, a Kingston resident who pioneered stop-motion photography and assumed the atavistic spelling of his forename after the Saxon kings. In a further spiralling loop, he died in 1904, a mile from the installation. Altogether, the all-encompassing work is best described in the artist’s own words, “like a free-flowing X-ray of an unseen past, a ghostly palimpsest…”
To celebrate Collishaw’s first permanent outdoor public art installation in the UK, Port caught up with him to discuss nostalgic reveries, modern mediums and the world of bats.
Though this feels different in scale to another of your works, Albion, both appear concerned with ghostly recreations of England’s past – why is history a site you enjoy exploring, or material you like to work with?
History can form and inform us, it can influence how we behave and who we are. Religion, politics, architecture all of these things are human constructs that to a degree shape how we think and act, so they are interesting elements to bring into an artwork. With Albion I wanted to make a work about how a very rose-tinted idea of England was being peddled. That somehow, if we could just get back to England’s idyllic past, problems like immigration and unemployment would disappear. I scanned the Major Oak, a centuries-old mythical tree in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham. It has at its core a hollow rotten trunk, and since the Victorian era its vast limbs have been supported by an elaborate system of scaffolding. I wanted to suggest that this nostalgic reverie was on its last legs and that we were trying to prop up a dream based on an illusion, that was itself dependent on artificial constructs in order to appear convincing. Echolocation was an opportunity to use the same technique, laser scanning, to project us back into the past and examine the ghosts that haunt this once sacred area. The scanning technique is also not dissimilar to echolocation, the system by which bats navigate, so the various elements all interlaced effectively together.
What are the challenges and opportunities of translating the past through modern means, i.e Lidar scanning, multiple video channels? What can new technology reveal and where does it fall short?
Technology can reveal a great deal that is invisible to the human eye, it provides an almost God like overview; being able to see objects as semi-transparent in intense minute detail and from multiple perspectives. The data can, in combination with other digital technologies such as video projectors, give a strangely fugitive, transitory quality to the image that resonates well with the idea of history as being objects and structures that survive through time. Always changing, always the same. It falls short in being a medium that needs a degree of maintenance but I don’t see any conceptual shortcomings. I like the way it contrasts with the distant past, I’m not trying to create something that actually looks ancient.
How did you go about distilling a millennium of local history, what was your research process?
Most of it was online searches. The days when I would spend weeks in reference libraries are long gone. I read a lot about the history of Kingston and, as the Echolocation site was next to All Saints Church, this was an obvious starting point. The church is not the most charming edifice but from my experience with scanning I knew that it could transform the most humble structure into a compelling image. The fact that a lot of early English Kings were crowned here gives the area a quasi-mythical aura. Kings weren’t chosen because they were nice gentlemen, it was assumed that their status had divine ordination. This gives the area a semi spiritual quality which I thought would be interesting to try and tap into. I also discovered that Kingston was a big fishing area and the emblem of the borough includes fishes. It was once called Kyngston Super Tamisiam, Tamisiam being a Latin word for filter or net, this relates quite well to the idea of projecting onto a mesh or net, which is how the projection is presented.
Were there any stories or people you uncovered, that although fascinating, you weren’t able to include?
There were many! I was originally working with an old English document pertaining to the history of Kingston. I had the text moving across a screen, so each letter formed pixels that briefly formed a sequence of images of a flying eagle animation originally created by Muybridge. There were 100’s of iterations of the project before it found its final form.
Speaking of, Eadweard Muybridge is a remarkable man, why did you decide to reference him in the work?
I make a lot of works that reference animation. I’ve made around fourteen 3D zoetropes, Victorian precursors to modern film-making that produce the illusion of motion through rapid rotation. They all feature animals or people moving and the animation is crucial, so I spend a lot of time breaking movement down into individual frames. Muybridge is ground zero in this field. His research was groundbreaking and is still indispensable when you’re analysing movement. I read quite a few books on him years ago, one particularly, The River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, is superb. She writes about how time and space changed and were compressed at the end of the 19th century. This was partially linked to the transatlantic railway that joined the American East and West coast, but also due to people like Muybridge who were pioneers in a period which gave rise to the dawn of cinema.
What qualities does Echolocation take on at different times of the day?
The work really comes to life after dusk when the sun goes down. The screen I’m projecting onto is white, so you don’t get decent blacks until there is no daylight illuminating the screen.
What have you learnt about bats?
I don’t think you could ever learn enough about bats. Over 1,200 species of bats worldwide, they can fly at speeds of 100 miles per hour, their echolocation skills are astonishing, just don’t eat them!
Mat Collishaw, Echolocation opens on 14 April 2021 and will be on view daily until 11pm at 6 Riverside Walk, Kingston, KT1 1QN