AMID the whirring matador flutter of pheasants' wings and jazz solo feats of singing, this is the perfect time of year for artist Mat Collishaw to ask whether birds' acts of courtship are sinister.

This Londoner with the international portfolio is presenting The Centrifugal Soul as the inaugural exhibition at the new Courtyard Gallery at Castle Howard, near York, having exhibited solo shows at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Blain/Southern in London and Galleria Borghese in Rome.

The centrepiece is a zoetrope, a sculpture that produces the illusion of motion through rapid rotation and stroboscopic light. This technology, originally the forerunner to modern film-making, animates scenes of Bowerbirds and brightly coloured birds of paradise as they conduct elaborate mating rituals.

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Camberwell artist Mat Collishaw outside Castle Howard. Picture: Charlotte Graham

"The sculpture took about six months of design work, not working 24/7, but it was important to get it right," says Collishaw, who works out of a ground-floor studio in an old pub in Camberwell. "Aesthetically you make decisions and then you have to make the symmetry of the design work, so that it's repetitive but also looks natural, which is a paradox, so you're looking for a compromise."

Collishaw has created an animated story in 3D, where he has designed each bird and flower on computer software and then each one-second clip is divided into 18 frames. "They are then 3D printed with 18 of the same Magnificent Rifle birds, Hummingbirds, tropical birds from Papua New Guinea and Australia, all performing their courtship displays," he says.

The zoetrope was developed by Collishaw through his work with evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who believes that the origins of art stem from natural instincts of courtship and evolution. Miller suggests that evolution has created an inescapable drive to be noticed above the visual competition, feeding our need for self-promotion, and he also coined the phrase for the exhibition title.

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Emily Jackson, from Blaine/Southern, watches the zoetrope's "illusion of motion through rapid rotation and stroboscopic light"

The Centrifugal Soul is displayed in darkness, whereupon light becomes integral to the sculpture. On the surface, the artwork is a psychedelic delight for the eyes, but wait for the metronomic, mesmeric repetition to take effect.

"At first it's very entertaining for us to watch, but there's always something creepy about the courtship ritual because birds are programmed that if they don't mate because the male's plumage is out of shape, or his dance moves don't let him get it on, there'll be no eggs and the gene line will die out, which makes it all rather sinister.

"It turns out the display is the opposite of seduction, it's intimidation. That's why it's not so much a dance of joy, but a dance of desperation," says Collishaw, his imagery equally apt for the last-dance chancers before booting-out time in John Godber's nightclub comedy Bouncers.

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Abbigail Ollive, Castle Howard's head of marketing, stands by Mat Collishaw's Gasconades (Hustle), a work inspired by a hawfinch colony spotted feeding at the Yorkshire Arboretum. Picture: Charlotte Graham

"The zoetrope has this repetitiousness that's like the mechanical process of the courtship display, where the male is trying to create an illusion, trying to seduce the opposite sex. So initially it looks like a floral display, but then I'm flaunting my feathers. You can enjoy it as a bit of entertaining eye candy or you can take my ideas on board and embrace them."

Drawing parallels with human behaviour, Collishaw says: "It's a serious thing. We need food, we need shelter, but sex is essential," he says, before savouring a Kingsley Amis quote about men's sex drive. "When he finally lost his libido in his 70s, he said, 'Thank God for that. It's like being chained to an idiot for 50 years."

Reflecting the rural setting of the Courtyard Gallery – created in old storage space in the Castle Howard courtyard – the zoetrope is complemented by a new series of trompe l’oeil paintings of British garden birds tethered to perches under the title of Gasconades, as Collishaw continues his exploration of visual power play.

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Artist Mat Collishaw in the darkness of the Courtyard Gallery as his zoetrope sets in motion. Picture: Charlotte Graham

Among them is a hawfinch, painted by Collishaw in response to the bird causing excitement earlier this year when a rare colony was spotted feeding at the Yorkshire Arboretum in the grounds of Castle Howard.

These works hark back to the 17th century fashion for commissioning portraits of prestige pets, made popular through Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting The Goldfinch (1654). For all their bold plumage, today they are competing with graffiti in the cities, where the birds struggle to stand out against the riotously colourful graffiti-tagged walls behind them.

"These works provide a contemporary example of aesthetic boasting as a form of sexual signalling," says Collishaw. "All of them have Instagram hashtags to "demonstrate their worth, flaunt their active social life".

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Mat Collishaw's Gasconades (BeastMode) draws an admiring look. Picture: Charlotte Graham

"'Gasconades' means 'showing off', like a boulevardier, a raffish young man, does. Now it has become so exacerbated by social media, where people curate their appearances, but that leaves a hole, a husk, at the centre as we're pushing everything out on to the surface.

"Geoffrey Miller says it's a natural urge that goes back thousands of years, but we're getting out of control in this age of Snapchat and Instagram. We have to think about what makes us civilised beings. It's fascinating that something that seems initially superficial in fact goes so deep, dictated by our primary instincts."

Beauty is sometimes rather inanely compared with truth, notes Collishaw, who demurs from that perception. "Often it's cynical and manipulative and malevolent; a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating artifice: a construct to sell us a brand," he says. "Religion did that before this age with its iconography, which was a form of manipulation and control."

Should you wish to investigate Collishaw's work further, his virtual reality artwork Thresholds is on show at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford until May 7 as he takes a trip back to the early days of photography. Further afield, his exhibition of 40 works, under the title of Standing Water, goes on show at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague from April 10 for three months.

Mat Collishaw's exhibition, The Centrifugal Soul, runs at Castle Howard’s Courtyard Gallery until September 30. Entry is free for Castle Howard ticket holders.