«The dark side of my work primarily concerns the internal mechanisms of visual imagery and how these mechanisms address the mind.»
— Mat Collishaw
Through optical illusions, paintings, projections and moving sculptures, Mat Collishaw creates the works and scenarios that directly and unconsciously engage the viewer both consciously and unconsciously, prompting reflections on psychology, history, sociology, and science. He delves into how we perceive and interact with the world, including modern technology and images, raising questions about behavioral manipulation, programming, and temporal reality.
The term “Machine Zone” describes the immersive state that gamblers enter when engrossed in a game, disconnected from the outside world. It is linked to the addictive effect of variable rewards, as players are driven to keep returning due to the uncertainty of future outcomes. This psychological insight has been adopted by software designers who incorporate similar concepts into social media platforms by introducing functions like comments, likes, and shares, enticing users to repeatedly and often compulsively check their feeds. The Machine Zone symbolizes society’s growing dependence on an increasingly mechanized and technology-driven world.
The Machine Zone (2019) is an art installation featuring robotic birds engaging in repetitive actions based on a programmed algorithm. The work draws inspiration from the 1950s experiments conducted by American psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner, who observed the behavior of small animals under the influence of a random reward system. Skinner’s experimental approach involved giving subjects a signal to encourage them to perform specific actions in exchange for rewards. His findings led to the understanding that our behavior is influenced by circumstances and environmental factors. This concept forms the foundation of research into the algorithms that govern our interactions on social networking platforms today. Exploiting the vulnerabilities of the human psyche, these algorithms shape our habits and create unconscious addictive behaviors.
The series of paintings titled The Operant Conditioning Chamber (2022), is based on photographs from Skinner’s early experiments. In these paintings, the birds are confined in cages to study their behavior, unwittingly becoming agents for data collection, which can then be utilized for manipulation and financial gain.
“Using food, leverage, and other environmental factors, Skinner demonstrated that what was thought to be an independent response was in fact a conditioned reflex, and thereby called into question the seemingly immutable concept of free will,” – Lauren Slater.
The Centrifugal Soul (2016) is a large-scale zoetrope created in collaboration with Geoffrey Miller, a renowned contemporary evolutionary psychologist. A zoetrope is an elegant structure dating back to the Victorian era, a period that often finds references in Collishaw’s works. At the core of the zoetrope is a platform adorned with models of flowers and birds. Rotating at a speed of 60 rpm, the platform is illuminated by strobe lights, flashing every second. This arrangement creates an illusion of movement as the birds appear to hover over the blooming buds and engage in mating dances, displaying their vibrant plumage. The courtship rituals of birds are innate behaviors programmed by nature to ensure breeding and the continuation of their species.
Drawing parallels to the natural instincts of birds, the artwork also explores the way technology companies have capitalized on human behavior by encouraging constant self-presentation through social media and smartphones. These platforms prompt individuals to project an idealized version of themselves, showcasing success and desirability to the outside world. The work delves into how technology leverages our instincts for social recognition and connection, leading us to continually create and project curated images of ourselves in the digital realm.
The Nerve Rack (2019) was originally created specifically for the former Ushaw Seminary in County Durham as a site-specific installation. A life-size mechanical figure of an eagle was Placed in the chapel of St. Cuthbert’s Church, in front of a lectern adorned with a bronze sculpture of an eagle designed by the 19th-century architect Augustus Pugin. These majestic images symbolize opposing spiritual beliefs that were prominent in 16th-century England. Facing each other, the mechanical eagle and the elegant bronze sculpture represent both unity and irreconcilable differences between the Catholic and Protestant movements of that historical period. By contrasting the minimalist machine with the intricate bronze artwork, the artist explores the power of suggestion and the manipulation of information through visual imagery.
Expiration Painting (2016) is a series of Plexiglas-framed paintings, reproducing works by Old Masters. Revolving subjects around the transience and finitude of human life, Collishaw presents the “eternal” theme in a contemporary manner while retaining classical imagery. The reproductions intentionally appear incomplete, resembling a partially printed image on a sheet of paper due to an ink shortage in the printer. This artistic choice prompts viewers to reflect on the brevity of moments, even amidst our fast-paced technological era.
“To find out what it is that we are creating when we’re making this simulacrum of the world, and how much that is divorcing us from the world or how much it’s making us understand the world. It’s kind of what we are as human beings that interests me. And for that I can fall back on so many different fields of interest, from that kind of evolutionary biology which I’m very interested in, to the history of art, and also evolving technologies.”
Collishaw’s works have been exhibited in numerous museums and public collections globally, including Tate (London, UK); Somerset House (London, UK); Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, UK); Galleria Borghese (Rome, Italy); Pino Pascali Museum Foundation (Bari, Italy); Bass Museum of Art (Florida, USA); Freud Museum (London, UK); Galeria d’Arte Moderna (Bologna, Italy); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville (Paris, France); The Brooklyn Museum (New York, USA); Museo di Roma (Rome, Italy); MNAC (Barcelona, Spain); Arter Foundation (Istanbul, Turkey); British Council Collection (London, UK); Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris, France); Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna (Torino, Italy); Museum of Contemporary Art (San Diego, USA); Museum of Old and New Art (New South Wales, Australia); Olbricht Collection (Berlin, Germany); The State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia).
– Mat Collishaw