Hollow Oak consists of a video of an oak tree projected onto a piece of etched glass. The glass is framed by an original wooden carrying case of the kind used to carry nineteenth-century negatives, and this is mounted on a clear glass base set about three feet above ground level. Most of the time the projection is almost still and the installation is silent. However, at intervals, the sense of tranquility is gently disturbed by the soundtrack of a gust of wind rustling through the leaves of the tree.
The patina of the etched glass gives the projected image a quality similar to an old photograph. This adds to the sense of nostalgia inherent in the image of the oak tree itself, a traditional icon of Englishness. By combining antique photographic apparatus and timeless subject matter with new technology, Collishaw implies that our perception of nature is framed, like the image of the tree, by cultural modes of perception. In this respect Hollow Oak can be related to a number of other works such as Antique 1994 (British Council Collection), in which Collishaw has used themes from cultural history, art history, and the scientific and natural worlds to draw attention to the relationship between nature and culture. As the critic Andrew Patrizio has written, 'All art is to some extent artificial ('art' after all has its origins in 'artifice'), and Collishaw's video, slide-projected and photographed works are more artificial, more filtered, than most. It is a deliberate tactic.' (Patrizio, p.1)
A number of critics have commented that Hollow Oak may have been inspired by the presence of the ancient 'Major Oak' in Sherwood Forest near Collishaw's home town of Nottingham. For hundreds of years this tree has held a reputation as the place where the legendary medieval outlaw Robin Hood hid from his enemies. Andrew Patrizio has written that:
The artist has talked about the determination, verging on cruelty, of the local tourist and heritage lobbies to keep the medieval story alive by propping up the ancient oak with chains and metal supports. It is as if the authorities are behaving like children obsessively demanding an old story to be re-read to them. Collishaw offers an alternative - that we have ambitions for our fantasies which the material world cannot sustain. (Patrizio, p.3)
Andrew Patrizio, Mat Collishaw: Recent Work, exhibition pamphlet, Camden Arts Centre, London 1995
Louisa Buck, Moving Targets 2: A User's Guide to British Art Now, London 2000, pp.50-2
Ann Gallager, Dimensions Variable: New Works From the British Council Collection, London 1997, pp.70-1, reproduced in colour p.71