Imagine you were on death row and offered the opportunity to choose your last meal, what would your very last craving be? Damien Hirst's Other Criteria presents new works of the series 'Last Meal on Death Row' along with the 'Inner City Inhaler' collection and 'Insecticide' series - all by Mat Collishaw, one of the early 1990s Young British Artists (YBA) movement (along with other Goldsmiths graduates such as Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Damien Hirst).
The series of 'Inner City Inhalers' includes an array of smoking bottle bong replicas made with murano glass in various colours and displayed in a large medicine-like cabinet. The inhalers are deformed imitating the analogous shape of used and melted plastic bottles whereas their content (as highlighted in the gallery's literature) impersonates the polluted city air. The 6 photogravure etchings of the 'Insecticide' series depict colourful butterflies on dark backgrounds. Their title suggests the inevitable forthcoming death, a topic that is heavily pronounced in the core series of Collishaw's show.
'Last Meal on Death Row' comprises of 7 medium sized works incorporating a favourite theme in the ancient Greek/Roman art and later reinvented in the 16th century, the 'still life'. Although at first glance it seems we are dealing with the usual still life compositions, a closer look divulges the clue given away by the title itself. These are the very last meals of notorious condemned prisoners such as murderer Gary Gilmore and serial killer Velma Barfield. The theatrical appointment of the foodstuffs juxtaposed on dark backgrounds reminiscent of 17th century vanitas Dutch parallels appears as an undeviating memento mori. The history of the act of granting someone on death row a last meal, which derives from the symbolic praxis of forgiving the executioner, encompasses the macabre superstition of preventing the condemned’s ghost from returning.
Knowing the context of each exhibited work, the symbolism collapses facing the raw reality; we are not admiring here a work that merely reminds us of our mortality, we come to terms with death himself. Collishaw also goes a step further by digitally transferring his prints on to goatskin parchment, a very strong material with an enormously long life expectancy. The antithesis of printing ephemeral still lifes on an almost indestructible medium is a robust statement for the omnipresent ‘life and death’ diptych that undoubtedly occupies the artist’s mind.
Mat Collishaw talked to REVma -/+ about his new works:
REVma -/+: The current exhibition includes works continuing a previous series, 'Last Meal on Death Row'. How did that particular subject come about, and, especially the combination of the memento mori tradition with the specific still life depictions?
M.C.: I remember seeing some images on this subject many years ago, I think in the Sunday times magazine. The food was on plastic trays and shot from above with a flash. They had a very strange intensity despite the very mundane subject matter and the banal way the scenes were documented. It took me a very long time to reimagine them as still life vanitas images where the humble elements of the picture become sober reflections on the transience of life, and the meaningless accumulation of worldly goods. The works become surrogate portraits of the executed prisoners, each mundane choice they made becomes in a small way iconic.
REVma -/+: Is there a parallelism between the theme of the 'Last Meal on Death Row' series and the medium of goatskin parchment?
M.C.: Looking at the images on goatskin is like seeing a premonition of the food before it has been digested and sits in the stomach. Food against skin. The parchment /skin also has primal associations which contrasts with the artifice of some of foods.
REVma -/+: What led to the decision of transforming the form of a plastic smoking bong into a fragile glass inhaler sculpture?
M.C.: I was looking for something to make in murano glass and decided that I would like it to be a debasement of this noble art. There is quite enough elegant glass around already. When you smoke plastic bottle bongs they blister and distort under the heat, creating very interesting perversions of mass produced bottles. So you have a contrast between the mass produced object and it's dissolution under a natural element, i.e. heat. Transforming these cheap and sad little moments of hedonism into murano glass was a way of memorialising this strange meeting of forms. The trump l'oile glass effect also mirrors a shift in perception that happens on inhaling narcotics.
images from top to bottom: 'Inner City Inhaler' series, 2012; 'Last Meal on Death Row - Gary Gilmore' 2012; 'Last Meal on Death Row - Velma Barfield' 2012. all images © the artist and Other Criteria.