Ed Atkins makes digital, computer-generated videos that emphatically stress corporal, analogue reality. The videos exhibited at DHC/ART have the startling ability to return us to our bodies despite – or perhaps because of – their bodiless, digital constitution. The animations themselves centre on representations of starkly physical things, sensations, and experiences – a singularly human affective terrain performed by uncannily realistic computer-animated surrogates. In combination with the imposing scale and volume of their installation, an Atkins video can profoundly unsettle the viewer, disturbing the distinction between what is alive and what is not, what moves of its own volition and what is ‘animated’.
Each work in the exhibition features a solitary protagonist sharing intimate situations and emotions via garbled soliloquies of desperate longing. They are punctuated by fragments of pop musicoff-screen belches, mawkish inter-titles, and absurd declarations, which are juxtaposed with advertising stock and the character’s embarrassing breaks into heartfelt karaoke. The fierce verisimilitude of the computer-generated animation and effects is employed to a hysterical, grotesque degree, with every hair, bruise, and contusion blooming and sucking beneath lens flares and dust motes, all towards some corporeally empathetic end: a connection with the viewer on mortal terms, which the videos can only pathetically rehearse despite their livid abjection. Contemporary digital imagery’s veracity collapses beneath the weight of its bloody, sensitive, flawed charge.
Spanning both 451 and 465 rue Saint-Jean, the works presented at DHC/ART are five of Atkins’s most recent. Ribbons (2014) is a three-channel installation in which a naked, male figure drinks, smokes, sings, and burbles his melancholic self-pity into a whiskey glass that fills and refills with booze, blood, and urine. Falling in and out of synchronicity, the work runs through what might be a night of progressive inebriation, culminating in a particularly deflating rendition of the aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. In Hisser (2015) we encounter our protagonist in his bedroom during a never-ending night, held in a disastrous, fugue-state loop of loneliness and confusion from which there is only one horrifying means of escape. Safe Conduct (2016), Atkins’s latest work, is a pitch-black send-up of instructional airport security videos that demonstrates the symbolic violence we are all subjected to for the dubious reasons of security and safety. A ballet of procedural horrors unfurls to the relentless rhythm and slow building lunacy of Ravel’s Bolero.
Through offbeat timing, jump cuts, and a raft of other skewed cinematic tropes, Ed Atkins destabilizes what we presume to understand about audio-visual storytelling. His is a reflexive vernacular built from cinema, television, games, pop music, infomercials, and the hybrid world of the online with its remodelling of our relations via social media. Atkins’s works conjure a delirious portrait of a collective contemporary psyche: dissociative, sociopathic, misanthropic, absurd, desperate, and vulnerable. The fact that the artist lends his voice and facial expressions to each of the surrogates adds to the acute struggle around discernment: the way the various material and dematerialised worlds we all now occupy confuse a coherent sense of self, of what life is, and of how we relate to one another.