British artist Ed Atkins’ twists tired CGI into full-blooded self-questioning with his first major solo exhibition outside the UK. There’s piss, there’s booze and there’s Johann Sebastian Bach.
‘Can you do me a favour, mate? Oi, can you do me a favour?’
A thuggish head floating on a blue screen is talking to me. Considering he’s the art I’ve come to look at, he’s using an unnecessarily demanding tone. Blood drips from his avatar nostril; is that Randy Newman he’s singing?
In the next room, the head has grown a body. Viscous urine splashes into a cut-glass tumbler, but its computer-generated smoothness gives it the feel of high end advertising. The head/body sits behind a bouquet of empty pint glasses, smoking, singing, weeping. I turn around and he’s there on a second screen, and then again on a third: a CGI video triptych of a broken human heart. Visceral 2.0.
The protagonist is Dave, an avatar created by Atkins through filming his own facial expressions and mapping them onto a hairless hunk of beta-meat. The result is an over-stimulated, internet-age thug-poet who serenades his audience with a mix of 17th century opera and philosophical self-questioning. It would all be trite, tired, tried and tested if it weren’t for one deliciously arresting thing: the form.
‘Recent Ouija’, curated by the Stedelijk’s newly appointed director Beatrix Ruf, consists of eight CGI video works and one collection of screen prints, all made between 2012 – 2015 and now spread over nine rooms in the Museum’s basement. The artist’s key achievement is using the banal aesthetic of computerised imagery to address the universal artistic themes of love, sex and death.
Atkins captures Pixar’s computer-pop, chops it into pieces, then peppers the once-cuddly medium with existential panache.
Tone, texture and rhythm are the artist’s masterstrokes; content is secondary. 3-D word art flies down-screen like its advertising the Super-Bowl; in fact, the words resemble terminology from an essay on Gilles Deleuze.
‘Nodding floaters, dumb-fathomed in sub-primed unravellings’, run the babble of words on the laser-cut wall texts, continuing this theme of jargonistic jibber-jabber. Once again Atkins’ focus is on the way we’re being addressed, not the address itself.
For once in the world of CGI, it’s totally unclear what the designer wants me to feel. Should I sympathise with the heart-broken, fag-dragging Dave, or perhaps giggle at pathetically flaccid penises gliding through glory holes? After years of abuse from the one-dimensional corporate machine, Atkins has given CGI the artistic attention and sensitivity that pushes us to question it instead of mindlessly suckle at its soft-focus teet.
Immersion without escapism: this is the true power of Atkins’ work.
In an interview with the Stedelijk, Atkins explains, ‘I use computerised images because I wouldn’t like to ask a real human to do the things I want to do on screen’. Using his own features as the paint, and the screen as canvas, the artist blends a multi-mirrored self-portrait that is harrowingly reflective of our internet/real world dual existence.