NEXT door to the Prado, there is a 1,000-year-old tree that appears and disappears like magic depending on which angle it is viewed from.
Surrounded by bursts of colour from Madrid’s Royal Botanical Gardens,it is propped up by scaffolding as its trunk rots and it threatens to keel over.
The tree, which really does exist in Sherwood Forest, has been converted into Albion, a work by the somewhat ghoulish artist Mat Collishaw– erstwhile member of the late eighties movement known as the Young British Artists, along with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – a former girlfriend.
Now in the turmoil of Brexit, Mat, 52, links the installation to his perception of the UK’s desire to be set adrift which is already affecting the UK artist as EU funded exhibitions are cancelled.
“The tree is like the old mythical England and there is an illusion of taking back control of something that should maybe be left to die,” says the artist in a darkened corner of the Villanueva Pavilion. “Brexit is about getting back the empire, a lost time.”
A contemporary of Hirst at Goldsmith’s, Mat became the talk of the art world in 1988 when he exhibited Bullet Hole at the collective Young British Artists exhibition, Freeze.
Bullet Hole was shocking, and fashionable, and snapped up by gallery owner Charles Saatchi. But its on-trend credentials pushed Mat in a different direction to focus on making connections – often between the past and the present.
“I’m a big fan of James Rhodes who I believe is also known quite well in Spain,” he says. “He’s reinterpreting classical music and making it meaningful to contemporary struggles. This isn’t dissimilar to what I’m trying to do.”
His favourite Spanish artist, for example, is Goya probably because he believes the artist spans the classical and the contemporary.
“He lifted the curtain to show the darker side of human behaviour,” he tells me. “He was a witness to the terrible deeds that occurred and that were largely ignored by more devotional and triumphant painting. An inquisitive and courageous artist, champion of the underdog. “
There was no TV in the religious Dawn Christadelphian household Mat grew up in in Nottingham. Mat’s father made false teeth and Mat concentrated on drawing.
He drew a lot – footballers and soldiers but now he is more likely to use technology to tease out the morbidly fascinating elements of material otherwise mundane and easily overlooked, linking not only the past with the present, but also nature with the supernatural, and monstrosity with beauty.
But the pieces that leave a lasting impression in his first solo Spanish exhibition,Mat Collishaw Dialogues curated by the Sorigué Foundation,are those elevating death and violence to a higher plane.
Inspired by the Bible’s The Massacre of the Innocents, All Things Fall is a carousel of evil that shows tiny figures performing acts of outrageous depravity, such as a fat man flogging a naked woman and people hurling babies from balconies.
As we watch mesmerised, Mat explains, “I was exploring what draws us to violence. It is as though we might learn something from it, as though we were drawn by some primal instinct that might help us avoid death.”
Similarly, the SeriaLudo zoetrope spins to animate miniaturefigures engaged inorgies of debauchery, inspired by the passage from The Book of Ecclesiastes, “Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”
Death, is clearly something Mat spends time brooding over, an obsession one can only assume is shared by his partner, taxidermist artist Polly Morgan who lives with him, their small son Cliff and Mat’s son Alex from a previous relationship, above his studio in Camberwell, London.
But when I ask him what inspires his work, he tells me, “It could be anything from a conversation on a bus, to a TV show or a book. I am always looking for a connection, matching subject matter with form; and seeking novel ways to present ideas – ethical ideas that are pertinent to the present day.”
Hailed as one of the most serious artists coming out of Britain, Mat has managed to carve himself a very different niche from his contemporaries. While he hasn’t deliberately distanced himself from the YBA movement, he says: “Any label is inherently a way of generalising, which is helpful for easy consumption, but not deep understanding. And I’m definitely not a ‘young’ anything I’m afraid.”
At the end of the day, there is nothing gimmicky or frivolous about Mat. He does not depend on shock tactics for attention and avoids the personal and confessional.
“Like Goya,” he tells me. “I like to lurk in the shadows.”
Mat Collishaw Dialogues is on at the Villanueva Pavilion in Madrid’s Royal Botanical Gardens until May 24.