Ed Atkins – Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York

This piece was commissioned by and first published in this is tomorrow:

If there’s one artist I’ve always been curious to meet in the flesh, it’s grand master of the avatar and wordsmith of wonk Ed Atkins. The Berlin-based British practitioner has forged an extremely successful career by inserting various, slippery versions of his CGI ‘self’ bang at the centre of his operatically layered video works. It’s a trademark that’s as awkwardly, brain-crushingly present as ever in his current show at Gavin Brown’s new space in a former distillery in Harlem.


There’s the ruddy, slightly pock-faced Atkins/not Atkins avatar half crooning, half caterwauling his way through a bizarre ballad as he slowly sinks down his bedroom wall in ‘Hisser’ (2015); the sweary, tattooed, skinheaded piss artist version singing Purcell arias and bits of Randy Newman with his drunk, digi head plastered to a virtual pub table in 2014’s multi-screened ‘Ribbons’; and the version from ‘Safe Conduct’ (2016) who quite literally dismembers himself, placing his body parts (along with a pineapple and a revolver, among other objects) into white trays on an airport conveyor belt pulled from the most grotesquely paranoid of imaginations. All of them are made to be just a few degrees from ‘perfect’ digital versions of this artist/everyman – just as they flirt with being a bit too human. An awkwardly lifted arm or stutteringly smoked cigarette immediately shouts ‘Thunderbirds puppet’, and it all collapses.

Language, too, is used to Atkins’ unique ends. Bits of (are they?) quotes rendered in Game of Thrones-esque fonts punctuate the enormous, ceiling-suspended screens of ‘Safe Conduct’ and voices from all three boom around the space, occasionally synching, but more regularly clashing. All this is constantly and intentionally elusive – you can never catch every word or lyric or squelchy noise as the layers of sound constantly interrupt each other, and the multi-screened elements can never be viewed at the same time.

Of all the pieces on show here, it’s the most recent ‘Safe Conduct’ (titled after the document that ensures a traveller safe passage through enemy territory) that has something resembling a message, albeit a typically ungraspable one. What makes this all so engaging is the feeling that the core of this stuff – Atkins’ version of sense – is just a few feet beyond us. It’s at the moment you feel as if you might be able to grab it that the work chucks us straight into another rabbit hole.

NYC-based British gallerist Brown couldn’t have made a more prudent choice of artist to inaugurate his new space. This place is made for Atkins’ haunting screens – ad-hoc, ply-lined passageways, crumbly brick walls, and just enough holes in the roof and piles of pigeon poo to feel convincingly like we’ve happened upon a bit of a hidden marvel. It’s the mashed sounds, arias and nonchalant voices that most effectively guide us through the three floors they’ve made use of in this vast building, and the impeccably installed works provide the perfect contrast to their (slightly self-consciously scruffy) setting.

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