Children of Destruction: Mat Collishaw, Inspired by the Beslan Siege, Examines Our Attitude to Images of Violence, Writes Michael Glover

Article excerpt

Look at any constellation up in the night sky. Some stars will be shining more brightly than others. I am standing in a sepulchrally long and dark gallery when that thought occurs to me, staring up at a new photographic installation by Mat Collishaw. Images of grievously wounded children are flashing momentarily on all four walls and, just as quickly, fading away again. The walls themselves are covered with phosphorescent paint, hence the eerie, haunting effects.


This is Collishaw's first big London show in five years. He belongs to the YBA generation that graduated from Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s, taking part in the "Freeze" exhibition that launched the group. The piece he displayed in that show, a deeply disturbing image called Bullet Hole, is still his best-known work. It is a close-up of a bullet wound, enriched, enlarged and thoroughly aestheticised. Damien Hirst is still a close friend. Tracey Emin is a former girlfriend. Why has he not enjoyed a similar degree of recognition? Why has his star not shone as brightly as others'? Is it something to do with an inability to be a relentless self-publicist?

The new show, together with an exhibition at Haunch of Venison this summer, may help to change all that. Collishaw's new installation is a bravura manipulation of the photographic image, played across all four walls of this long and fairly narrow gallery space, which feels, as you pace back and forth along it, the slightly uneven parquet floor squeaking beneath your heels as you go, a little like a courtroom. And that seems about right, because this show is all about moral issues--the prurience we feel before images of violence. The aestheticisation of violence. The subject has a long history in western art: were not Raphael and Ribera aestheticising violence when they showed us such exquisite devotional images of Jesus on the cross? Was not the horror eased away by such images of beauty?

For this installation, Collishaw has taken images of violence from the popular press, of violence perpetrated against children. The starting point for the entire project was the grisly school siege in Beslan, southern Russia, which went on for three terrible days in 2004. The artist has chosen images from that siege, and from other sources, manipulated them and projected them on to walls. But it is the manner of the projection, and what happens to those images, which is so enthralling in this show.

Each image flashes on to the black wall, but it does not disappear. Instead, it begins to fade into a kind of ghostly after-image (or perhaps after-memory) of itself. Then, bang, another image gets projected somewhere else, quite at random, with the same intensity, and that also begins to fade, so that we are left with this ghostly layering--or near-layering--of images of terrible violence. In spite of all we know, they begin to look heroic, if not iconic, projected and lingering like this, as if they were memories of some image from Blake, Goya or Gericault. …