top of page
  • Writer's pictureAngel

Mat Collishaw Interview Part Two

In part two I delve deeper into Mat’s practice and discover how he responded to brutal tutors and harsh crits, I hear all about the legendary Freeze Exhibition, plus how he managed to create provocative work on a shoestring at the dawn of his career.

Angel - Was there anything you found frustrating or challenging whilst studying at Goldsmiths?

Mat - Well we had to move buildings at the end of our second year to New Cross because the whole fine art department was relocated. We didn’t care, but it totally screwed us really. Because they were still building the workshops, all the studios were in quite a disparate part of the college and suddenly you were sharing the college with ten of thousands of other students and you didn’t even know who was on your course anymore. So that wasn’t an ideal situation but I don’t think we were mentally scarred by it.

"We’ve got to toughen you up"

It was a challenging course, but that was a very positive side of it, that you were really asked to justify what you were doing and more importantly think about what it is you were doing.

That's what the course was designed for, to make you think and consider.

I think a lot of art schools have a certain amount of fees given towards materials etc, so Goldsmiths was quite harsh as there wasn’t much of that. The tutors were quite brutal with you sometimes, if you complained the answer was, “well this is what the real world is like and we’re not here as a kind of nursery, we’ve got to toughen you up, so when you are out there on your own you’re equipped”. That was part of the job. So they made it quite clear being tough was the best preparation they could give. Handling you with kid gloves is never going to do you any favours.

July 1988 - Bullet Hole, Freeze Exhibition

Angel - How did the collaboration come about for the Freeze exhibition ?

Mat - I think the thing with contemporary art is, it doesn’t really exist until people are looking at it. This has been the case for quite a while, so making work in your studio and then just tucking it away means you haven't got that other element that people bring to it, the discussion that follows. Whether it’s good, it’s bad, it’s interesting or not. All those things are part of the conceptual art world.

"It was quite important to try and put something out there"

So I think we felt that it was quite important to try and put something out there. Plus it’s quite a fun thing to do, create this space and put your work on the wall, get some distance from it, and get some feedback on it, then move on. It’s quite a good way of making a line in the sand.

Angus Fairhurst organised an exhibition in Russell Square at the University of London and about twenty of us took part in it, when we were in our second year. We put on this exhibition but there were a lot of obstacles. Because it was in a lobby area with carpets, we couldn’t control the lighting, there was also lots of traffic and people coming through it. But I thought it was an interesting thing to do. However, it wasn’t the biggest success due to all these other elements that we couldn’t control.

"It’s just that we were trying to create the cleanest possible environment"

So from that Damien particularly, got the idea of doing it again but in a far more professional way. Damien had been working at Anthony d’Offay Gallery for quite a while, which was one of the few good high end international galleries. So he kinda knew the protocol of what it took to put on a professional exhibition, the white walls, the clean floor, the little shadow gap, having an opening with wine, an invitation card and catalogue. All of these important things of how to mount an exhibition in a professional manner, But it wasn’t because we were trying to recreate a professional gallery scenario to sell loads of work, instead it’s just that we were trying to create the cleanest possible environment for exhibiting the work, so you’re not aware of anything else other than the works. When you’ve got other obstacles in the way; a winding staircase, a flickering light and all these other things, it becomes harder to look at the artwork inside the environment, as the environment isn’t neutral.

"Climbing in the windows or kicking a load of doors down"

Damien is really good at galvanising people, so over the course of eight months he went through recruiting various friends inside the college that we had, whose work he liked, and then trying to find a building. We went to quite a lot of buildings, climbing in the windows or kicking a load of doors down, trying to find somewhere that was in an area that was reasonable close to the center of London, not in the West End, and that we could get some kind of use of for several months whilst we put the show on. That built up to the summer of 1988 which was when we were in the end of our second year at Goldsmiths, so it was mainly Damien driving the whole thing.

1988 - Preparations for the Freeze exhibition, Surrey Docks, London. Photo by Lala Meredith-Vula -

Angel - It’s interesting that you said it took eight months because of the way the press present these stories, most people think that success comes overnight, and they aren’t really aware of how long these things take to plan and execute.

Mat - Yes, some of the students were older than us so they were concentrating on their work, getting it to quite a polished degree, so they probably weren’t as involved in the organisation of it. But pretty much everyone that was involved in the exhibition was in the building ripping out all the old carpets, angle grinding all the radiators off, filling up holes in doors and windows, installing lighting, painting, etc. Everybody pretty much took part in the renovation of the building to make it a space that was worth exhibiting in.

1990 - Crucifixion

"I suddenly had to drop out a little bit"

Angel - How did you feel after you graduated? What did you do to establish yourself as an artist?

Mat - Well it was slightly different for me because I had a son in the year that I graduated in 1990, so I suddenly had to drop out a little bit. I couldn’t go to the openings, to the places where everybody meets.

Angel - You mean where they got to network with other artists?

Mat - Exactly, all that kind of stuff, I would go out occasionally, but not as much as other people and I had added responsibilities so it was very difficult. I carried on working, all through college I was working other jobs as well.

1990 - Narcissus

"It was a challenge just to be able to support myself"

Angel - What sort of jobs were you doing?

Mat - Building sites, working in theatre, call centers, selling stuff door to door. And I carried that on when I left college as well, it was a challenge just to be able to support myself, paying the rent on the studio, paying rent on the flat in London and then having the money to buy materials to work with, it was very difficult.

I worked in White Chapel for a little while, I had a studio there and I started making works, sculptures out of old bits of scrap wood I found in the skip, photocopies and stuff like that, things that were pence rather than pounds. I had just started getting a couple of exhibitions, trying to struggle along really whilst working and supporting a child.

Angel - Do you think there was anything important you did during that time to get those exhibitions, to get into galleries?

Mat - Michael Landy, Gary Hume, Angus Fairhurst, Ian Davenport and myself all did a show or two at Karsten Schubert’s, and that kinda came from the Frieze exhibition really. That’s where we first met with Karsten, and I started getting noticed in other places such as Naples and Geneva. Tanya Banakdar we knew from Anthony d’Offay moved to New York, she opened a gallery there so I knew her from London. So little by little I started getting bits and pieces of shows here and there.

1993 - Ultraviolet Angel

"Taken over by some slightly heavy big gang"

Angel - Tell me about your first studio? And you mentioned the materials you were using, because you didn’t have a lot of money, did this impact your work?

Mat - Before White Chapel, we got a place in Deptford, I think it was an old pub like the one I have now. Also on the corner, but a bit bigger than this, with a few other artists. We went in there and spent a lot of time renovating it, getting the electricity on, it was basically a squat, getting it as we needed it.

We started making a few works there, I was working with photocopies, polythene and stuff like that. Then the whole place got taken over by some slightly heavy big gang, guys we didn’t really want to argue with. So all the work that we did was pretty much in vain, as we lost the place, and it was like that for several years. I’d get squat type places, so it was short lived, none of them really lasted long.

1994 - Antique

"The actual way that they’re framed becomes very important."

Angel - What about your methodology, has the way you work changed much over the years? How do you go about deciding on what ideas to work on? What materials to work with, what technology you are going to use?

Mat - I think I’ve got a broader range of mediums now that I work with, because at the time I started out I was just working with slide projectors or photocopies, stuff like that because it was just cheap to do. But I like working in lots of different mediums because I’m basically doing the same thing, of trying to make images of the world and make people see things in a certain way, the actual way that they’re framed becomes very important. At first I used to worry about what if you stick the photocopy on the wall? Or what about if it’s on wood and then on the wall? What if you give it a metal frame? All those options show up, and it’s quite paralysing as there are so many of them to choose from.

1996 - Catching Fairies

I try to broaden that out to include many other things such as pepper’s ghost optical illusions, three dimensional zoetropes, anamorphosis, lots of illusions, things that make you aware of the fact that you are involved in looking at something, and that an image is being created in front of you that is an illusion. Virtual reality, laser scans, generally things that kind of address the thing of looking at something.

2008 - Deliverance

So I broadened my palette in terms of what it is that I work with and try to find the best means of delivering the idea that I’ve got. I’ve developed certain techniques for projecting certain images onto phosphorescent paint, burning images like ghosts onto the wall if it suits a particular subject that I am trying to work with.

I try to use the form to say something about the content that I'm working with.

To see more of Mat's work take a look at his website -

Click on the link below for the final chapter where Mat describes how his relationship with technology has evolved, why he thinks it’s important to maintain an edge and how he handles huge complex projects.

228 views0 comments


bottom of page