British artist Mat Collishaw is preoccupied with ways of seeing. From early works, such as Bullet Hole—an image of a head wound caused by an ice pick magnified to resemble a genital orifice, exhibited in Damien Hirst’s seminal 1988 exhibition “Freeze”—he has been concerned with illusion and truth, representation and reality.
Experimenting across media, from painting and sculpture to photography and film, Collishaw forces viewers to do a double-take. His latest show, “Thresholds,” which debuted at Somerset House in London and then traveled to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Central England, was no exception, exploring the still-novel territory of virtual reality. Visitors donned a backpack, VR headset, and headphones and plunged back into Victorian times to enter a re-creation of one of the earliest exhibitions of photography. It was where the British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his “photogenic prints” to the public.
It’s 1839. You step into a high-vaulted hall at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, where the exhibition was staged by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The school was built by Charles Barry, architect of England’s Houses of Parliament, and the structural similarities are striking. Out of the corner of your eye you catch sight of a small black mouse scurrying by your foot. You sidestep to avoid it, gasping involuntarily. You wander around peering at prints of plants, shells and lace displayed in rows of waist-high wood-framed vitrines, which you can touch. Scientific instruments are arrayed in cabinets at the end of the room.