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Mat Collishaw will take viewers back to world’s first photography exhibition in 1839

YBA is also considering using virtual reality to recreate Nazi’s ‘degenerate art’ show

by Anny Shaw  |  17 February 2017
Mat Collishaw will take viewers back to world’s first photography exhibition in 1839
Mat Collishaw, wet-collodion print (Image: courtesy of the artist and Blain/Southern)
Mat Collishaw, who rose to fame as one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the 1990s, is taking on virtual reality (VR) for the first time. In May, the artist will recreate the world’s first exhibition of photography at Somerset House in London. 

For the show, Collishaw is using VR technology to create a portal back to 1839, when the British scientist William Henry Fox Talbot first presented his photographic prints to the public. Visitors will be able to walk around a digitally reconstructed version of the room used by Fox Talbot at the King Edward School in Birmingham and view his early photographs in their original vitrines. Outside of the virtual room, Chartist demonstrators will be heard rioting. 

Many of Fox Talbot’s original images have faded beyond recognition, and some have to be kept in pitch-black vaults to preserve them. Collishaw has worked with historians and archivists to recreate these prints using digital copies.

There are clear parallels between the revolutionary power of photography and VR, the artist says. “Photography was obviously a game-changer—it introduced an entirely novel way of looking at the world. VR has a similar capability to distort our relationship with the way we see things by presenting an utterly convincing simulacrum of them.”

In future, Collishaw is also considering using the cutting-edge technology to revisit the “degenerate art” exhibition organised by the Nazis in 1937. “[It was] the cream of European art, hung by degenerates,” Collishaw says of the exhibition, which featured avant-garde paintings shunned by the Nazis.

Almost 250 people donated £25,000 via a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the Somerset House exhibition. Mat Collishaw: Thresholds (17 May-11 June) is launching as part of Photo London, the annual photography art fair that is also held at Somerset House (18-21 May).

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