To pin meanings onto British artist Ed Atkins’s semi-narrative video works is a difficult assignment. Throughout the two pieces currently on display at MoMA PS1, which are composed of high-definition, three-dimensional renderings of human figures and faces set onto flat compositions of color and digital collage, meaning ebbs and flows, emerging and then flashing away like a fish darting across the bed of a shallow river, always close to hand and yet constantly escaping. Despite, or perhaps because of, this teasing, there is something uniquely compelling about getting caught in Atkins’s aesthetic current.
PS1 is hosting the artist’s “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths,” a single-channel work created this year, and “Us Dead Talk Love,” a two-channel installation accompanied by large collage drawings. Perhaps the first thing to notice in Atkins’s work is the visual idiom, which should be familiar to any active browser of the avant-garde internet. His human forms, most often a floating head that seems to be a self-portrait, are presented firmly within the uncanny valley: extremely high resolution, super detailed, but always somehow off. The texture of the skin isn’t quite real; the limbs and joints don’t fit together. It’s part of the dominant style of a certain generation of digital artists (Atkins is 30 years old) who take inspiration from the imperfect graphic engines of video games like The Sims and software like Maya. (See the bizarre work of Wendy Vanity, the collective creation of DIS magazine, or Ryan Whittier Hale‘s glam 3D mannequin videos for comparisons.)
A clip from Ed Atkins’s “Us Dead Talk Love”
What makes Atkins’s work different is the writing, editing, and polish of his videos. Both piece are presided over by central narrators who speak in fragments of poetry — “Us Dead Talk Love” by Atkins’s avatar and “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” by a series of anonymous figures (one with a version of Atkins’s face) sitting on chairs sunk in an underwater environment. They speak smoothly, with Atkins’s British accent, spinning out lines and phrases like, “I wonder what you thought about my desire to become a representation of myself” and “the echo of specific arousal.” In “Spring Mouths,” words pop up in black caption boxes, sometimes voiced by the protagonists, sometimes unvoiced. It’s a constant hide-and-seek for the viewer that forces aggressive attention. This is video art that you can’t blank out on; the mind constantly seeks the tail of the story and the turns of the plot, as one does when reading a John Ashbery poem.
Atkins doesn’t fully identify as a writer (see his interview with Rhizome), but his scripts are poems, and they’re collected in a pamphlet available at PS1. His spiraling, self-referential sentences, set to a background of sniffs, coughs, clicking sounds, and synthesized washes of noise, create their own rhythm that’s hypnotizing in the opposite way of Ryan Trecartin’s frenetic argot. Both of Atkins’s videos build on themes of sex and intimacy and share an obsession with body parts, creating a dichotomy between the reinforced artificiality of the images on screen and the subject matter they discuss.
Speaking about the dual nature of 3D graphics’ superficial realism, Atkins notes in his Rhizome interview, “Wireframe forms are skinned and rigged, but what about all that echoing space inside?” Through both his visuals and his text, the artist plumbs the empty space at the center of his medium, gauging the hollowness of our latest imperfect way of recreating reality.
Ed Atkins runs at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, Queens) through April 1.