Technology developments such as High-definition, surround-sound or prosumer means of production brought forward the promise of increasingly realistic depictions of the world. In a somewhat paradoxical way, contemporary visual culture seems progressively dominated by stylised images whose craving towards perfect composition drifts away from reality, creating a visual regime which to a great extent looks more abstract, artificial and flat that one would expect. Current digital technologies are able to produce highly detailed representations of texture and surface but have seemingly lost their material substance as if trapped by the same surface they so accurately portray. Far from the magical transformation of still images into moving pictures, we are now left with the mysteries of invisible data and intangible codes, matter lost to encryption and replaced by flatness and intangibility.
Amidst the range of artists engaging with these dynamics, Ed Atkins has chosen a frontal line of investigation by fully exploring high definition digital technology. Rather than commenting obliquely on these developments, either by reverting to analogue processes or by exploring low-fi or archival digital sources, Atkins explores the immaterial
body of the images first hand, laying bare its or structural elements while manipulating its most visceral organs. In order to rediscover the material possibilities of contemporary audiovisual developments, the artist uses the elasticity and vulnerability of the digital to reconsider the way we interact with visual culture, staging uncanny and liminal spaces on and off screen that are centered around the viewer’s body, hereby seen as a site where the lost corporality of the images may coalesce.
Following Atkins’ line of work the exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery presents moving image installations alongside sculptural sets where still images are displayed in panels and also a new publication—A Seer Reader—which includes an essay by the artist. This combination of different media is a central feature of the artist’s method, reappearing throughout his displays and playing an essential part in the process of retrieving the presumably absent materiality of the digital. The show is anchored around Ribbons (2014) a multi screen High- definition video whose main character is an internet troll. By presenting an online avatar as its central character, Ribbons develops on Atkins’ longstanding interest around the figure of the corpse which permeates his entire body of work. Like the avatar, the cadaver is understood as a hollow container of pure representation without predefined meanings, their emptiness standing as a reminder of our own physical existence. This set of ideas also spills into Atkins’ regular use of stock sound and imagery. Like indexes open to interpretation, stock materials have the ability to be specific in particular contexts but lack any intrinsic signification, being rather vessels of ambiguous connotations. Digital film and video are also seen as deceased bodies having been reduced to mere codes, cinematic carcasses void of material content.
Text is an additional focal point in the artist’s practice and may also be understood as part of his interest in the idea of the cadaver: its dependence on context to produce immaterial representations echoing the digital code in which contemporary images are grounded. The written phrases and voice-overs that populate Atkins videos fiercely incite the viewer’s engagement by triggering tactile perceptions, sound being a further and important instrument in this process. The videos present an elaborate array of bodily and machine-like noises such as whistles or clicks, which bring forward the presence of the apparatus as well as the body behind the camera (or better still the computer) and once more underline our bodily existence. Surround sound is recurrently disrupted by the absence of reverb in the audible breathing and clapping noises while simultaneously sub-bass frequencies penetrate the viewer’s body. The immateriality of sound creates another parallel with the digital code understood as a cadaver: both without visible/ material existence and yet able to produce palpable representations that stimulate corporeal interactions.
In Ed Atkins’ shows the space of display is not transformed into a cinema, there is no safe haven for spectatorship. Instead the exhibition rooms become an immersive set that teases out the potential and limits of technology as well as of human perception and communication. The diagetic and non-diagetic layers of his work merge in order to analyse the material qualities and existential echoes of representational regimes. Classical topics such as death or love are explored in a wide ranging investigation grounded around blurred dichotomies such as body and emotion, text and image, horror and humour, belief and skepticism or dissimulation and illustration. Atkins is a contemporary visual surgeon, resisting the call for perfection and abstraction and preferring to autopsy the dead in order to forcefully revive those still living.
until 25 August 2014
Ribbons (stills), 2014
Ed Atkins, installation views at serpentine Sackler Gallery, London, 2014
Courtesy: CABINET, London and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photos: © 2014 READS.