Of all the awkward, emaciated long-distance calls of the past 16 months, British artist Ed Atkins’s check-in with his mother certainly wins an award for pandemic isolation.
It was August, during a brief relaxation of European travel restrictions, and Atkins had traveled from his home in Copenhagen to Berlin. He spent the first half of 2020 thinking about how to combine sophisticated computer graphics with free-flowing conversation – and now, in Germany, he’s trying to speak normally while censors tracked his every gesture and jerk. had recorded. His other artistic collaborator was his mother, Rosemary, who was on the other end of the phone line.
“We were like a wonderful, old hotel,” Atkins recalls. He sat alone, while a team of Mimics, a Berlin studio specializing in motion capture animation, “sat in the neighboring room, like the Stasi members. They were monitoring me while I was sitting, oddly enough, full body. One in Lycra, and a cumbersome head rig with a GoPro at it.
Back in England, her mother talks about her childhood and marriage – the promise she once felt, the disappointment she now lives with. Atkins tried to reminisce about his past, but his body suit was soaked with sweat. The headgear caused a pain in his neck. Cameras were attached to his face and in every corner of the suite. And, all the while, “two German men in the neighboring room were listening to everything I said.”
It was, the artist told me about “this phyllo of strange levels of performance” one New York afternoon outside the New Museum—and now translated to “The Worm,” the animation at the center of his new show. is. The artist’s actions animate a digital stand-in, resembling some sort of TV host, shifting into his midcentury-modern chair, sweating under virtual clog lights. But when Atkins’ body is replaced by an avatar, the soundtrack isn’t reworked at all: only the cast and their mother, who are made of people and void but all human.
“Dad was very unconfident with his physical self,” his mother admits in voice-over. Afterwards, softly, she says, “I don’t really conform to the stereotype of being depressed.” We see the TV host scratch his CGI nose, shuffle his chair, snap his fingers; It’s hard to hear. “Oh, Mum…”, replies the son – or Avatar.
We were holding over $6 of iced coffee during a break from the setting of the New Museum show, titled “get the work of life / loveAtkins speaks with equal naturalness about the most mysterious poetry and the latest computer graphics software, and at 38 he still has the face of a child, offset by a tuft of gray hair. What I know and don’t know. Most of the time in his art, I’ve seen it behind a computer-made mask.
Most of his ultra-high-definition videos have a single avatar, which the artist wears as a theater costume. Alone in his studio, he performs his expressions and movements with prosaic facial recognition technology, sends them through Grand Guignol agony and slapstick pratfalls, and voices his poetic scripts in haunting voice-overs. They have skin and stubble, so reassuring that it feels discolored, and hematomas that glow like puddles after rain.
The video has made him one of the most admired artists of his generation. Barely in his 20s, he had solo exhibitions in major museums in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Yet Atkins reaffirms here at the New Museum—where his shows include not only computer-generated video, but also paintings, poetry, and even embroidery—that Horie is “a master of art and technology.” Crossroads” is hardly any less interesting to them. What really excites him are love and ennui, terror and regret: enduring feelings that our technologies cannot contain.
“The work may seem as though it is exclusively associated with these technical questions, and is associated with words like ‘.post-internet,'” said Laura McLean-Ferris, chief curator of the Swiss Institute in the East Village, who has followed Atkins’ work for a decade. “While these forms of media are very important aspects of the work, Ed also has a very strong literary quality, which has probably been missed earlier. They are imbued with a grief that is unbearable and uncontrollable, and outside of the work. Kind of leaks.”
“So much work, toward the beginning, was coming out of my father’s death,” Atkins now reflects. “You still have a body, and it will die, and you will die. Nothing changes with that…” – and he points to my iPhone, faithfully recording our chat, Immediately converting our speech into an adequate written transcript.
Atkins grew up in a village outside Oxford, where his father worked as a graphic artist and his mother as a secondary-school art teacher. “Painting and more classical stuff abound at home,” he says, “and it was inevitable that I ended up going to art school.” But he was also absorbed by cinema, specifically the Czech filmmaker’s Dark Comic Animations. Jan Swankmajer, and even more so by the postmodern literature of pyrotechnics donald barthelme and robert coover.
He graduated from the Slade School of Art in London in 2009 and his father died of cancer in the same year. Death, loss, agony, infirmity: these have baffled his art ever since. in his successful work”as dead talk love(2012), Two head cut heads interview each other about eyelashes, hair follicles, the smallest detail of their absent body. His eyebrows flutter. His skin shows razor bumps. They speak in a strange blank verse, of flesh and blood which they really do not have, “the lively emissions of a pair of corpses in agitated Congress.”
“Ed’s work was incredibly new and shiny – they looked like CGI portraits of sad men!” British American remembers the artist Danielle Dean, who attended art school in London with Atkins. “It was like going to the cinema and being immersed in a digital universe; All this was happening in the gallery. I hadn’t seen that level of impact before.”
His avatars are exclusively male, white in particular, English in particular – and often display the emotional hangups familiar to that subclass. “Help me communicate without impunity, dear,” begs the incarnation “ribbon“(2014): A skinhead drunk, collapses on pints of beer, who coughs and burps, but also sings a good snatch of Bach (in Atkins’s voice). “Old Food” Last seen at the Venice Biennale, her piano lessons involve an undeveloped child crying rivers, as if her body were just a bag of tears.
They speak distinct, sometimes slang poetry, which Atkins himself voices, and is really as much a writer as he is an artist. (“Old Food” is both a video series and . a book of prose poetry, and “The Worm” in the New Museum is preserved on sheets embroidered with poetic fragments created by artificial intelligence.) His speeches can break your heart or make you roll your eyes, depending on your mood. “It’s tapping into identity and something to do with white malice, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be heavily criticized,” Dean watches. “Avatar can be carried forward and perfected, but he also allows for moments of sad, sad white male that isn’t good enough.”
Here’s the important point, though: These avatars are not “characters”. He has no name, no back-story, no motivation. (I suggest you stick with Netflix if you go for that sort of thing.) They’re more like Containers, or Eclipse. They’re empty spheres, which, Atkins says, let him “in places that are otherwise very uncomfortable.”
They’re also not that fancy on the back end – just off-the-shelf figures that anyone can buy, animate, and voice from a personal computer. It took me just a minute to scroll through the out-of-the-box individuals on the 3-D marketplace TurboSquid.com, To find the normal white-male avatar Joe stars in Atkins’ 2015 video “Hiser,” apologizing and dreams that a sinkhole will swallow his house. (You can buy it yourself for $349.)
same man Gavin serves as the embodiment of Atkins in “Safe Conduct” shown in Brown’s Enterprise shortly after Brexit, which transports him into a monstrous parody of a British Airways security video. Avatar puts his brain and liver through an airport metal detector, encasing the organs in a plastic tray with a hilarious squish.
His use of readymade avatars comes back annaly, the dirt-cheap Japanese manga character that Pierre Hughe and Philippe Parreno bought and “liberated” in 1999. Store-bought virtual creatures were little more than line drawings at the time. Now they are almost alive. And Atkins uses his almost-but-not-absolute humanity as a shield, prison, and funhouse mirror.
“Part of this work turns into a dysmorphia question,” Atkins suggests. “Or at least the heredity of hating one’s body, which is certainly part of the desire to use avatars, if I’m being honest. I want to perform in all these things, but I don’t like my body. It’s from my mother’s side, and I know her body is related to her mother. It’s some kind of pathology.”
That distortion certainly makes itself present in the new work, which is Atkins’ first video to include a voice other than his own. There is a touching moment in “The Worm” when Atkins’ mother remembers dressing up in costume to get her parents’ attention. “It was really to get some kind of, um, response, I guess,” she says cautiously, while Atkins’ reactions appear on the waxy digital marionette. “But perhaps to become, by mistake, another completely different character.”
Like mother like son. “The reason I use this technology is because it short-circuits something,” he says. “The point of this should be that one can see through it things that would not otherwise be available. Or else I would film me talking to my mother.”