Preview: Folly

YBA Mat Collishaw has had to tone down his style for a collaboration with the National Trust. He points out to Ali Schofield, when looking at existing sculptures in the Yorkshire site, that ignorance is bliss

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A collaboration between the National Trust and famously provocative Mat Collishaw is not a likely pairing. But for his first solo show in Yorkshire, Folly, the Young British Artist has taken over two 18th century buildings in the grounds of Fountains Abbey.

Named after the society drinking club of the same era, Seria Ludo in the Banqueting House is an absorbing 3D zoetrope – an old-fashioned animation device – of 186 people and monkeys hanging from a chandelier. When spinning and strobe-lit they become animated in a scene of riotous debauchery. Meanwhile, down by the lake in the Temple of Piety, an 18th century marble frieze of the Roman symbol of piety – a Grecian daughter breastfeeding her imprisoned father – provides inspiration for The Pineal Eye, in which the pair becomes an illusory sculpture above a huge mirrored pebble.

“I did have to moderate my content,” Collishaw says, sitting outside the Banqueting Hall in the sun two days before launch. “Because of the National Trust, there’s obviously certain things you can’t have in there, like I would have had that Seria Ludo scene a lot sexier.”
But surely the Temple of Piety’s frieze is already… “kinky, yeah!” he interjects.

Did he employ self-censorship, then?

“No, they told me. I asked the question because I didn’t want to waste time, months designing stuff and then they say: ‘That’s not gonna happen’. I suspected it would be an issue because you’ve got kids of all ages coming in here so I asked up front and they said: ‘Yeah, absolutely no way.’ But as you say the Temple of Piety has already got something even pervier than I could have possibly come up with – an old man feeding on his daughter’s breast.

“Somehow, which I find quite interesting, when subjects get buried beneath the veneer of art history it all becomes acceptable. You’ve got all kinds of weird shit going on in the National Gallery but because it’s an old master’s painting you don’t really register what it is.”

Collishaw’s art is usually displayed in galleries but he says he has enjoyed using the “magical” site as inspiration. Indeed, the expectation of a younger, less deferential audience than usual inspired the Damien Hirst-contemporary at the last minute to order some high metal bars that will reference the voyeuristic prison setting of The Pineal Eye’s subject and protect the work. He says: “Actually I wish I’d thought of that months ago because it’s quite a nice other layer on the sculpture.”

The works draw on the Nietzschean philosophy that all art should balance the lust for life of the Dionysian and the detached discipline of the Apollonian.
“For the Banqueting Hall I wanted to make a work that captivates you in a very immediate way so you’re kind of overwhelmed a little bit, in the way that you become overwhelmed by the smell and taste of food and alcohol and all those sensual pleasures – so you’re engaged with that work, you can’t really help it, you’re just drawn into it. Then there’s the Temple of Piety – that’s the opposite. It’s an optical illusion that’s formed by a kind of pure geometry really. It’s just the shape of those mirrors with an object inside that creates that illusion. It’s a lot more emotionally detached in the way you actually experience it.”

Folly runs until 30 October at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, Ripon

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