Watch Mat Collishaw’s eerie ode to bats
British artist Mat Collishaw’s mesmerising public video installation Echolocation tunes into the navigation technique used by bats and pays homage to the rich history of Kingston
Lurking deep in an alleyway in Kingston is a curious, and possibly even enlightening sight. The subject of Echolocation, Mat Collishaw’s first permanent public installation in the UK is Kingston’s All Saints Church, a site that has borne witness to many a milestone moment in English history.
The original chapel, now long gone, was the coronation site of several Saxon kings including Athelstan, who, in 925, was crowned the first king of a unified England. ‘These kings weren’t crowned because they were nice guys, [people] assumed that they were divine,’ says the British artist via Zoom from his Camberwell studio and home, a former pub. ‘I wanted to interrogate the space and its spiritual allure.’
The church survived Henry VIII’s reformation and witnessed Kingston’s evolution from scattered settlement to modern-day town. Collishaw’s task was a multifaceted one: to excavate almost a millennium of Kingston’s history and create something, as he puts it, ‘coherent, accessible and engaging and not didactic or information heavy.’
The result is an eleven-meter-long, three-channel video installation now on view at the Undercroft, a long alleyway that runs between the river Thames and All Saints Church.
Collishaw used architect-grade 3D laser scanning (Lidar) to resurrect the church in an eerie, spectral haze. Like an X-Ray, these skeletal white shards, rendered in microscopic detail and toying with negative and positive space, feel simultaneously tangible, and not of this world. ‘You can see the architecture, but you can also see through the architecture,’ says Collishaw, who meticulously scanned the interior and exterior of the modern-day church building, now an amalgam of architectural styles.
In the process, the artist drew on yet another parallel with the town - a bat conservation area - the mysterious echolocation method used by the nocturnal animal to navigate. ‘It’s a high-tech way of reading, navigating and plotting out space, so there is a synergy between those things,’ he says. Collishaw casts a translucent bat as his animated protagonist in this otherworldly tale, gliding through the deserted church in eerie solitude. With video recordings of bats mid-flight few and far between, 3D-modelling its body, recreating its distinctive movement and plotting its journey through the church’s interior was easier said than done. ‘I’m constantly looking at frames of people or animals moving and how that can break down,’ says the artist, who collaborated with Kingston University’s animation department on the project. ‘Bats are so quick, so they are the worst possible animal to track.’
Accompanying the perpetually-looping installation is a composition comprising solo cello overlaid with a virtual choir and a soundtrack of bat noises. Ordinarily, when the flying mammals use echolocation, humans are only able to discern the occasional, very faint click. Slowed down, as Collishaw has done here, these clicks become perceptible to the human ear; endearing chirps with distinct tonal progressions.
Beyond its technical feats, the piece is a commentary on sacred space, a theme the artist’s work has long explored. Growing up in a highly religious environment, Collishaw talks of the similarities between the roles of gallery and church: ‘[in a gallery] everything is just pushed to one side and you can meditate on Carl Andre’s pile of bricks, or whatever you’re there for. You have a relationship with the artwork, whether it sings to you or not, or resonate or not.’
Collishaw also took Kingston’s prodigal son Eadweard Muybridge as his muse, the pioneer of stop-motion photography and whose work laid the groundwork for motion-picture projection. Muybridge was born in 1830 and christened Edward at All Saints, only later assuming the spelling Eadweard after the Saxon kings. He died, aged 74, a mile from the site of Collishaw’s installation.
The final piece of this complex web of sound and vision is the projection itself, cast onto a semi-transparent net-like mesh, another deft nod to Kingston’s history of fishing.
Best experienced at dusk, Echolocation is a homage to Muybridge’s meticulous breakdown of physicality in motion, the rich history of Kingston, the mysterious prowess of bats and the ethereal beauty of sacred space. §