Ed Atkins and his mother perform in a museum exhibit
Of all the weird, toned-down long distance calls of the past 16 months, British artist Ed Atkins’ recording with his mother surely wins an award for Pandemic Alienation.
It was August, during a brief easing of European travel restrictions, and Atkins had traveled to Berlin from his home in Copenhagen. He had spent the first half of 2020 thinking about how to combine sophisticated computer graphics with fluent conversation – and now in Germany he was trying to speak normally while sensors recorded his every gesture and contraction. Her other artistic collaborator was her mother, Rosemary, who was on the other end of the phone.
“We were in a wonderful run-down hotel,” Atkins recalls. He sat alone as a team from Mimic, a Berlin motion capture animation studio, “sat in the next room like members of the Stasi.” They watched me as I sat awkwardly in full Lycra and a bulky rig with a GoPro on it.
Back in England, her mother spoke hesitantly about her own childhood and marriage – the promise she once felt, the disappointments she lives with now. Atkins tried to get memories of his past, but his body was wet with sweat. Her neck ached from the headgear. Cameras rolled inches from his face and around every corner of the suite. And, all the while, “two Germans in the next room were listening to everything I said to him.”
It was, the artist told me, a sweltering New York afternoon in front of the New Museum, “this phyllo of ridiculous performance levels” – and now it’s been translated into “The Worm”, animation at heart. of his new show there. The artist’s movements animate a digital substitute who looks like a sort of TV host, moving around in his mid-century modern chair, sweating under virtual klieg lights. But while Atkins’ body has been supplanted by an avatar, the soundtrack isn’t at all retired: just the artist and his mother, made of ones and zeros but all too human.
“Dad did not trust him physically,” his mother says in a voiceover. Later, quietly, she said, “I don’t really fit the kind of stereotype of being depressed.” We watch the TV host scratching his CGI nose, crawling in his chair, cracking his fingers; it’s hard to listen to that. “Oh, mom…” the son – or the avatar responds.
We were making up over $ 6 worth of iced coffees during a break from the New Museum exhibit installation, titled “Get Life / Love’s Work.” Atkins speaks with the same naturalness of the most obscure poetry and the latest computer graphics software, and at 38, he still has a baby face, counterbalanced by locks of gray hair. It is a face that I know and that I do not know. Most of the time in his art I saw him behind a computer generated mask.
Most of his ultra high definition videos feature a single avatar, which the artist dons like a theatrical costume. Alone in his studio, he interprets their expressions and movements with prosumer facial recognition technology, sends them through the torments of Grand Guignol and slapstick bullshit, and voices their poetic scripts in ghostly voice-overs. They have such convincing skin and stubble that they look perverse, and bruises that glisten like puddles after rain.
The videos made him one of the most acclaimed artists of his generation. Barely in his twenties, he had personal exhibitions in the largest museums in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Yet what Atkins reaffirms here at the New Museum – where his exhibit includes not only computer-generated videos, but also painting, poetry, and even embroidery – is that the old ‘intersection of the art and technology ‘could hardly be less interesting to him. What really drives her are love and boredom, terror and regret: lasting emotions that our technologies cannot contain.
“The work may appear to be exclusively related to these technological issues and has been associated with terms such as ‘post-Internet’,” said Laura McLean-Ferris, chief curator of the Swiss Institute in the East Village, who followed the Atkins study. 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 may have been missed before. They are driven by a heartbreak that is uncontrollable and unruly, and somehow seeps out of work.
“A lot of the work, early on, was the death of my father,” Atkins now remembers. “You still have a body, and it will die, and you will die. Nothing changes about that… ”- and he points to my iPhone, faithfully recording our conversation, instantly converting our speech into a good enough written transcription.
Atkins grew up in a village outside of Oxford, where his father worked as a graphic designer and his mother as a high school art teacher. “Painting and more classic stuff abounded around the house,” he says, “and it was sort of inevitable that I ended up going to art school.” But he is also absorbed by the cinema, in particular the dark and comical animations of the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, and even more so by the postmodern pyrotechnic literature of Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover.
He graduated from the Slade School of Art in London in 2009, and in the same year his father died of cancer. Death, loss, waterlogging, debility: these have haunted his art ever since. In his outstanding work “Us Dead Talk Love” (2012), two decapitated heads talk about the eyelashes, the hair follicles, the smallest details of their absent bodies. Their eyebrows twitch. Their skin shows razor bumps. They speak, in a strange blank verse, of flesh and blood that they don’t really have, the “living excretions of a pair of corpses in a dumb congress.”
“Ed’s work was incredibly new and brilliant – they looked like CGI paintings of depressed men!” recalls the Anglo-American artist Danielle Dean, who attended the London art school with Atkins. “It was like the experience of going to the movies and being immersed in a digital world; all this was happening in the gallery. I had never seen this level of affect before.
Its avatars are particularly masculine, particularly white, particularly English – and often exhibit the familiar emotional blocks of this subclass. “Help me communicate without debasement, honey,” begs the avatar in “Ribbons” (2014): a drunk skinhead, collapsed on pints of beer, who coughs and burps but also sings a beautiful piece of Bach (voice of Atkins). “Old Food”, seen at the last Venice Biennale, features a stunted child crying over rivers at his piano lesson, as if his body were just a sack of tears.
They speak in distant, sometimes rude, verse which Atkins himself expresses, and indeed, he is as much a writer as an artist. (“Old Food” is both a video series and a prose poetry book, and at the New Museum “The Worm” is protected on a sheet embroidered with poetic fragments composed with artificial intelligence.) Depending on your mood, their speeches can break your heart or make you roll your eyes. “It’s tapping into something to do with white identity and masculinity, but not necessarily being very critical about it,” Dean observes. “The avatar can be supportive and perfect, but it also allows for moments of the sad and depressed white man who is not good enough.”
Here’s the critical point, however: these avatars are not “characters”. They have no names, no stories, no motives. (If you go for that sort of thing, I suggest you stick with Netflix.) They are more like containers or receptacles. These are empty shells that Atkins says let him “live in places that are too uncomfortable otherwise.”
They aren’t even that fancy on the back – just standard numbers that anyone can buy, animate, and voice from a personal computer. It only took me a minute, browsing the ready-made characters in the TurboSquid.com 3D Marketplace, to find the generic white-type avatar that stars in the 2015 Atkins video “Hoist », Moaning apologies and dreaming that a chasm will engulf his house. (You can buy it yourself for $ 349.)
the exactly the same guy serves as Atkins’ avatar in “Safe Conduct,” shown to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise shortly after Brexit, which carries him in a monstrous spoof of British Airways safety video. The avatar placing his own brain and liver through the airport metal detector, the organs falling into the plastic tray with a hilarious squish.
Its use of ready-made avatars dates back to Annlee, the inexpensive Japanese manga character that Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought and “released” in 1999. At the time, these store-bought virtual beings were hardly any more. as line drawings. Now they are almost realistic. And Atkins uses his humanity almost but not quite as a fun shield, prison, and mirror.
“Part of this work looks at an issue of dysmorphia,” suggests Atkins. “Or at least an inheritance of loathing for his body, which is certainly part of the desire to use avatars, if I’m being honest.” I want to perform in all of these things, but I don’t like my body. It kind of comes from my mom, and I know her relationship to her body kind of comes from her mom. It’s a pathology in a way.
This pathology is certainly present in the new work, which is Atkins’ first video to include a voice other than his own. There is an emotional moment in “The Worm” when Atkins ‘mother remembers dressing up to get her parents’ attention. “It was really to get some sort of, uh, response, I guess,” she says cautiously, as Atkins’ reactions appear on a waxy digital puppet. “But also maybe to become, uh, another completely different character.”
Like mother, like son. “The reason I want to use this technology is that it bypasses something,” he says. “The point of this has to be that you can see things through her that wouldn’t be available otherwise. Or I would film myself talking to my mom.