Mat Collishaw: Nerve Rack

London-based Mat Collishaw is a key figure in the important generation of British artists who emerged from Goldsmiths’ College in the late 1980s. He began collaborating with Adam Keenan in 2018, with an animatronic portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, called “The Mask of Youth” at Queen’s House in Greenwich. Adam’s career highlights include producing creative effects in the Star Wars movies, including working on the droids in The Last Jedi. He has also made scary creatures for Doctor Who, notably the Minotaur in The God Complex.

The animatronic eagle was designed especially for the exhibition at Ushaw, it is entitled The Nerve Rack, and was on display outside St Cuthbert’s Chapel. The artwork was inspired by one of the treasures of Ushaw, a lectern topped with a bronze sculpture of an eagle, designed by Augustus Pugin, and exhibited in the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851.

Mat designed a skeletal animatronic eagle to confront Pugin’s sculpture inside a large barrier, symbolizing the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Elizabethan times.  He was also influenced after reading The Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics (1584), which was annotated by the Elizabethans’ chief priest hunter and torturer Richard Topcliffe.

The name “The Nerve Rack” combines the ancient instrument of torture with the test of faith faced by those persecuted for their religious beliefs.  “I wanted to show the church as a machine trying to fulfil a function, alongside the brutality, torture and suffering between two religions,” said Mat. “Topcliffe was a sadist who took pleasure in the pain of others, so the eagle is laid bare to show its inner workings, stripped of heraldic power yet still sinister. It’s taken nine months to complete but I’m thrilled to see it in such a stunning place with so much history.”