Mat Collishaw was at the epicentre of the Young British Artist explosion. While his former Goldsmiths’ classmate Damien Hirst and his ex-girlfriend Tracey Emin revel in their superstar status, Collishaw is still upsetting punters with images of syphilitic child prostitutes and women being mounted by a Minotaur. “I wouldn’t call myself a rebel, but I’m from Nottingham so there is a bit of Robin Hood in me,” he tells Wonderland.
Mat Collishaw was born in 1966 into a family of devout Christadelphians – a small sect who believe that the Bible is error-free and that TV and female education are the work of the devil. At 19 he left Jesus and the East Midlands behind him to do an art foundation course at Trent Poly. He then won a place to study fine art at London’s Goldsmiths College, where he was approached by a bolshy 23-year-old fellow student called Damien Hirst and invited to exhibit at Freeze, a show in a Docklands warehouse. Collishaw and 14 other Goldsmith students – including Gary Hume and Sarah Lucas – accepted, and on opening night in July 1988, mere anarchy was loosed on a stagnant art world. The YBA revolution had begun.
What made your class at Goldsmiths special?
We were just a bunch of misfits, the losers who didn’t fit in anywhere else. We weren’t smug like students at other colleges, who were just ‘lifestyle artists’ drinking coffee and being enigmatic. I remember some students from Falmouth College coming to see us and that’s when I started to get an idea of what we were really like. One of them showed us a wooden sculpture they’d pegged together using dowelling. My classmate Angela Bulloch said, “Why not just use a fucking screw?” We weren’t arty-farty. Freeze was simply a case of we have a gallery to fill, let’s make something. We had a nice impatience to us.
A lot of your pieces contain graphic sex, bestiality, paedophilia, violence. Why?
We’re wired to respond to images like that. It gets us going, generates the adrenaline. It makes you feel totally alert and awake. When the news pumps out horrific images, it’s the same thing: it’s keeping us on our guard. People feel OK seeing these things. They’re a good-thing; we’d be worse off without them. We need images of humans in desperate situations in order to reflect.
Were you reactionary when you started out?
Definitely. Back in the mid-80s British art was so formal. We were young, we were skint and we were only interested in having sex, drinking and making a bit of art. Why should an abstract sculpture be of interest to me at that age, living in an urban centre like south London, getting on the number 36 bus every day? I wanted my work to engage with the foibles of the human race. To get some emotion in there but in a way that was still conceptually vigorous. I wanted to have an effect on the audience that was aggressive and offensive. But within 18 months that was what people wanted. It was like, ‘People ask for gore, so I’m going to give you gore?’ I don’t think so.
Describe your new solo show Shooting Stars…
It’s an installation. The space is in darkness and the walls are washed with day-glow paint. Archive images of Victorian child prostitutes on the streets of East End London appear like ghosts from a projector. These kids were totally disposable: their existence was to work the streets, catch syphilis and die. I wanted to bring them back to life again. There’s a second piece called Animal Nightlife, which consists of a 3-D zoetrope that shows a Minotaur fucking a girl with a couple of old men peeping at them. There’s a baby getting fucked in there too. It’s about the obsession of looking at things.
Are you bored of the YBA tag?
I was always bored by it. It was just another media construct and a totally irrelevant way of summing people up. All our work was very different. The only cohesion was that we used to hang out together. At the time Young British Artists didn’t really say very much. It wasn’t like abstract impressionists or cubists. It just meant we were of a certain age and from a certain place.
You dated Tracy Emin between 1997 and 2002. How did that impact on your career?
I don’t think it was that positive really. The problem is that when you’re sat next to Tracey it’s like she’s a 1000-watt halogen bulb and your personality is always going to be like a candle in comparison. She’s so bright, brash and loud that she’ll dwarf anything around her. But it was fine with me… not a problem.
Does it bother you that a lot of your YBA contemporaries are more successful than you?
It doesn’t bother me… but it bothers the bank when they’re chasing me for money. Because I’m short of cash I spend 80% of my time doing inanely time-consuming things like getting on a bus to go and see something that a minion could do if I could afford the set-up. I have to take two buses if I leave anything behind at home. I’d like a larger studio than this – basically I’m a sound barrier for Jonathan Saunders. But as long as I can get enough money to make the piece of work I want, then all’s fine by me.
Do you consider yourself part of the art establishment?
Unfortunately not. Like I say, I don’t have the bank account to warrant that!
Would you like that sort of a bank account?
Money helps but it also ties your hands because you’ve made something that is a desirable product and that creates an onus on you to carry on producing the same thing. That’s not the case for me so I’m constantly looking for new ways to do things. It’s given me drive and ambition. I haven’t lost the will to push the boat out because I’m still not comfortable yet.
Words: Louise Brealey
Interview: Oliver Basciano