Charles Atlas review by Rebecca Lewin
Charles Atlas’ current show at Vilma Gold presents two works that exemplify the artist’s continuing insistence on direct engagement, with the medium as well as the subject matter of his practice. Atlas has worked with moving image and performance since the early 1970s and has collaborated with some of the best known dancers and artists up to the present day; Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Leigh Bowery, Michael Clark (to name but a few). Obsessed by the movement of human forms through space, he has created art that records and responds to avant-garde performance, often installing it in such a way that requires the viewer to perform a physical response of their own.
The first work in the exhibition, No Safety in Numbers (2011) is an immersive projection, covering three walls and part of the floor. The numbers 1 to 6, highlighted in white against a black background swirl, fall and spiral in a seemingly endless movement that fades in and out of organised patterns. The initial effect is twofold; the organised chaos has obviously been created by computer systems, where technological processes are hidden from most users by smooth icon-led interfaces, but the presence of moving digits is also reminiscent of the simplest forms of computing, where binary code was used as the first building blocks. Atlas has evidently adapted to new digital technology while retaining his long-running interest in the movement of figures (both digital and corporeal) in space formerly captured on film.
Entirely incongruous to this work is the sound track to Joints 4tet for Ensemble (1971-2010), which bleeds through from further into the gallery. This has been edited from ambient sounds recorded in different cities by John Cage. The dancer Merce Cunningham provides the link between Atlas and Cage - Cage’s partner, he was also a long-term collaborator with Atlas, and it is his fragmented body that is shown on the ten monitors of different sizes that face the viewer in this space. These play close-up shots of Cunningham’s joints, slowly flexing and relaxing; we see muscles and sinews move over bone. Strangely, though, these clips serve to remind us of the way we have been conditioned by cinematic techniques to expect certain sequences; Atlas keeps us watching, expecting at any moment that something extraordinary will happen to justify the close-up, or that at the very least we will be allowed to see the dancer’s entire body. When we realise that Atlas will deny us this, our attention returns to the space in which the monitors are displayed, the changing lighting that draws our attention to one grouping or another - in short the theatricality of the artwork itself.
Atlas has witnessed - and recorded - the evolution of technology and dance over the past forty years, treading the video artist’s tightrope between fine art and documentary film with grace and innovation. In Joints’ the contemporary viewer bears witness to a filmmaker exploring his medium as much as he is examining his subject, as Super 8 film had only existed for about five years when this work was shot. The inclusion of several frames of lead tape at the end of each film reminds the modern viewer of the original format, while the different sizes and colours of the monitors on which the films are shown alter the film quality, diverting our attention from the image to the technology chosen by the artist. I wonder whether the nostalgia associated with Super 8 film, or even with box monitors (rather than flat screens) will come to be attached to the digital projectors running silently and discreetly in No Safety in Numbers.