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Ed Atkins
Serpentine Sackler Gallery
Serpentine Road, London W2 2UH, United Kingdom
June 11, 2014 - August 25, 2014

Virtual Bodies and Real Hands
by Keren Goldberg

Human sounds of drinking, whispering, laughing, and singing surround the old British Army magazine building of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. The sounds combine from the three parts of the video work Ribbons (2014), which is the central piece of Ed Atkins’ solo show. The voices are as mesmerizing and disturbing as the hyper-real 3D animated films they accompany.

The sound goes out of sync and back again. The three parts of Ribbons are similar and different at the same time. In all three, Dave, the avatar of the young British artist, a virtual bold character, is talking to us—always wearing his birthday suit. On the one hand, Dave is the perfect man; equipped with a six-pack and hairless skin, he looks like he was generated by one of those computer softwares that combine all the portraits of the world into one average being (although his face is based on the artist’s portrait). But he is scary as shit; his HD liveliness becomes uncanny deathiness.

Dave drinks, smokes, and sings, and finally collapses on the bar; his head deflates like an old balloon. His words indeed sound like those of a drunken man. Similar words—Atkins’ characteristic language—feature again in the large drawings that lean against the walls. They look like enlarged pages from a notebook, with its margins covered by scribbles and doodles of what seem like unrecognizable and distorted body parts. The publication accompanying the show, "A Seer Reader," contains similar pages. Resembling long poems in form, and deprived of any narrative or coherent meaning to follow, Atkins’ words remain an enigma for me. When they are spoken by the artist’s visual avatars they are much more communicable and compelling.

Ed Atkins, 
Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August 2014)
; © 2014 READS


In his films, Atkins plays not just with syntax, but also with the form of language. The construct of subtitles is broken down when they appear all over the frame. Centered, bold titles conquer the screen as if they were trailers for blockbuster movies. Words and doodles appear on Dave’s perfectly toned virtual skin as well. These are not carefully drawn tattoos, as they were described in various reviews of the show, but rather loosely handwritten words. The difference is crucial.

In fact, this whole show is a struggle between a flat, linear scribble and a computer-generated 3D shape. In one of the three projections accompanying Ribbons, a different bold head appears, one that will be familiar to some from Atkins’ previous work Us Dead Talk Love, presented at Chisenhale Gallery last year. The head approaches the screen, looking as if it wants to say something to us, but each time the image fades away and disappears to be replaced by abstract lines, shapes, and drawings, opposed in style to the perfectly animated face.

The tension between these two aesthetics is present as well in the clever installation of Atkins’ show. Scattered around the space, almost unnoticed, are small wall sculptures in the shape of strange body parts, colored by hand to achieve a bodily texture of skin. It is not just the body of the artist present here in the shape of his avatar, but also his hand in the shape of his crafts. The projections, like their sound, are a bit out of sync—their margins deviate from the white coulisses onto which they are projected, resulting in a shape of light on the wall behind them. One of the projections is pierced by a small hole, just like the one Dave is inserting his tongue and genitals into in the film—but this hole is real, and the shadows of visitors walking behind it intervene with the image.

Ed Atkins, 
Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August 2014)
; © 2014 READS


All of these break the perfect illusion of Atkins’ virtual world and reveal the tangible—and vulnerable—facilities that operate it. This show is not just about the image of the body in the digital age; it is also about the body that produces it, and breaks simultaneously.


Keren Goldberg 


(Image on top: Ed Atkins, 2014, Stills from the three-channel HD video Ribbons; © 2014 Ed Atkins
 / Courtesy of CABINET, London and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin)

Posted by Keren Goldberg on 7/23/14 | tags: digital video-art mixed-media figurative digital art

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