It’s a freezing morning in Camberwell, south London, and we are on the trail of the next subject on our London art hit list, Mat Collishaw. He made his name working from east London, but now occupies a former pub south of the river which acts as his studio. In the large downstairs room, he shows me a tree stump that has been transformed into a record player, a relic from the installation “Total Recall” used in Collishaw’s Hysteria show at the Freud Museum in 2009. Atop the stump is a record that plays birdsong. Printed on it are concentric circles, mimicking the tree’s way of recording its own history – and how Collishaw’s history precedes him.
It feels fitting to be interviewing a YBA with a full camera crew present – they were, after all, the artists who came of age under the glare of the media flashbulb. Collishaw ticks all the boxes to be certified with the acronym, short for Young British Artist. He was there at the beginning, at the infamous 1988 Freeze show in London’s Docklands. Organised by Damien Hirst, it is thought of as the starting point for British art’s resurgence in terms of global notoriety. Collishaw’s by-now infamous work “Bullet Hole” – a gigantic photo-collage made up of 15 cibachromes mounted on light boxes, which together show a close-up of a gaping head wound – was the most memorable image of the show for many. It led to Collishaw being characterised as “art’s Mr Nasty” in the press – a familiar ritual of shock and disgust that has been projected on to every YBA of note. There was also, of course, Rachel Whiteread’s “House” (1993), in Tower Hamlets, a solid, ghostly remembrance of a Victorian terraced house that horrified the papers. Marcus Harvey’s “Myra”, which depicted the “Moors Murderer” Hindley, which were also predictably pilloried.
But none were more shocking than Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”, a readymade snapshot of a supposed breakdown; skid marks, vodka bottles and all. Shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, the noise from the critics was deafening. “The newspapers, even the broadsheet newspapers, take a very tabloidy approach to art,” reflects Collishaw. “How can you have a problem with things like Tracey Emin’s unmade bed when Robert Rauschenberg did a similar thing 40 years before?”
Collisaw went out with Emin during the height of the 90s art boom – a post-acid house, post-recession, post-Thatcher party. “And there was never a crowd for partying like this lot,” wrote Will Self in 2000. “They had it all: the cachet of anti-Thatcher anger; the decadence of the fin de siècle; the wit of a surrealistic lager advertisement; all shaken up and spurted over the British public in a froth of fuck-you philistinism.” These days, it’s less YBA, more BA… eh? Collishaw and his cohorts are no longer the spring chickens they once were – he is 46 – leaving the label an unsatisfactory one. Not that Collishaw liked it in the first place. “I didn’t care about the YBA label. It was a stupid, ugly term to describe a group of people who were all growing up at the same time. I think everybody’s work was really quite different, from super-minimalists, formalists and sculptors, to people making trashy sociological video art. Obviously they couldn’t come up with a brand name for it because everybody was just so different. So they had to go, ‘Okay, they’re young so we’ll put that. They’re British, even though some of them were from different countries, and they’re artists. Bingo!’ It’s kind of crazy.”
Read more of our exclusive interview in Issue Two of The Hunger, on sale now.
See more of Mat’s work on his website.