Photography is among the well-established and respected media today, but its history, development, and its first attempts often remain out of the interest of general public. Mat Collishaw tries to change this, with his new exhibition at Somerset House, titled Mat Collishaw Thresholds. The artist takes us back in time, and offers us a glimpse into a time when photography was at its beginnings. Not just a pure didactic exhibition with historical facts and figures, Thresholds is a virtual reality (VR) artwork which uses the latest VR technology in order to restage one of the earliest exhibitions of the medium from 1839 that was on display at King Edward's School in Birmingham. The exhibition showcased a photographic prints by William Henry Fox Talbot.
Several important aspects are addressed at Thresholds, which add to the general appeal of the show. The complete historical period has been reconstructed through the elements not directly linked with William Henry Fox Talbot’s exhibition, but which add to a broader understanding of the context in which photography as a medium developed. In addition, Collishaw’s virtual reality artwork also displays a preserved selection of photos shown at the original show the exhibition at Somerset House recreates.
With the help of technology that can reconstruct the past, the artist brings to us sounds and images that marked the year of 1839 in Birmingham, and the days when the Talbot’s exhibition was staged. The digital windows offer a glimpse on the Chartist protesters, who rioted at the time in the city, completed with the sound of the demonstrations. This unique soundscape adds a note of veracity to the represented room, and turns it into an immersive portal to the past.
As Mat Collishaw explains, his interest in virtual reality is not something that is removed from the medium of photography itself. It could be said, as he elaborates, that VR spawned from the invention of photography, and is now used to help recreate the origins of the medium it owns its existence to. For the artist, this was a compelling task that not just recreates a historical segment through the bespoke vitrines, moldings, fixtures, and even a coal fire, but it also brings Talbot’s photos to the contemporary audiences.
Unfortunately, most of these photos have been lost, or have faded beyond recognition. A few that survived are preserved today in light-proof vaults. Collishaw showcases several of them, offering an opportunity to the audiences not just to travel to the past, but also to see the images that have since been lost.
Mat Collishaw collaborated with several experts in the field while preparing this show, including photographic historian Pete James, Fox Talbot, Lary Schaaf, Paul Tennant from Nottingham University’s Mixed Reality Laboratory, with historian David Blissett, the team at VMI studios, and the Whitewall Company, London. The Blain|Southern gallery and Photo London were also collaborators on the project.
The exhibition Thresholds of Mat Collishaw’s virtual reality artwork at Somerset House, Strand, London, opens on May 18th, and will be on view through June 11th, 2017. The entrance fee is £4.50 or £3.50 with concessions. The opening hours from Saturday through Tuesday are 10-18h, and from Wednesday to Friday 11-20h.
Featured image: Courtesy National Media Museum Bradford. All images courtesy of Somerset House.