Theatre of the Damned
Mat Collishaw’s exhibition entitled Vitacide references a deceptively innocuous, colourless brand of insecticide - whose Orwellian moniker is formed of the dubious union of ‘vita,’ the etymological Latin root for ‘life,’ and the suffix ‘-cide’ to kill.
The dim lit room at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery contains two rows of glass vitrines with specimens of sickly flora, “The Venal Muses,” in part inspired by the syphilitic musings of Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, whose poetry in turn was inspired by his own body’s putrefaction. The pestilent blossoms that thrust themselves out of mounds of rotting earth appear proudly morbid in this garden of evil.
‘The skies that watched that proud carcass, lax or taut,
Bloom like a flowery mass.
So pungent was the stench my love, you thought,
To Swoon away upon the grass…’
Carnivorous blooms often imitate carrion to attract flies. At one end of the gallery, framed by cathedral windows, is speeded up footage of seductive flesh eaters, parting their plump petals open into labial deathtraps.
If the eroticism is apparent in these vagina dentatas of the vegetable kingdom, Collishaw’s references offer insight into more punk-gore romanticism like J.G.Ballard’s car-crash porn (Crash), in which the erotic flailing of car-crash victims invoke license for an accelerated libidinal drive. Then there is Joris-Karl Huysman’s, À rebours, a 19th century novel on Des Essientes, an effete dandy’s almost tyrannical and morbid obsession with beauty, having the same theatricality for exquisite detail as Mishima - whose writings often deal with the aesthetics of repulsion.
Collishaw also experiments in optical illusions with The Corporeal Audit, and he’s previously played with clever contrivances of zoetropes that seem to touch upon metaphysical notions of maya. The second gallery has another body of work, "Last Meals on Death Row," a series of photographs based on Texas inmates’ last requests. These meals are not attempts at last-minute calorific sustenance, but a futile and reductive measure of human desire: a satisfying meal is the most basic unit of corporeal pleasure. Collishaw’s compositions imitate the style of 17th century Dutch painters, the masters of vanitas, whose depictions of conspicuous consumption were reminders that we can't take all that stuff with us when we go.
Collishaw has told me he researched his selection of death row meals from documentation available in books and on the Internet. “I printed out 300 pages of meals and looked at them every night giving each one a rating for interesting selection and tried to find a good cross reference of choices. Most of the executed are black or Mexican so there was a lot of fried chicken and tacos...” The voluptuous illumination adds irony to the inmates’ poignant choice of cheeseburgers and tacos, a grand gesture of the lushly resplendent nature morte of dead chicken, and adds a saintly aura over the remorsefully Spartan, health-focused salads on the menu at these last suppers.
Published in SPREAD/ Art Culture Magazine, 2012