Ed Atkins Recent Ouija at The Stedelijk Museum
21 Feb – 31 May 2015
“And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Three of the great themes in art remain, love, death and god, or the lack there of. In the new exhibition of works by Ed Atkins, Recent Ouija, at The Stedelijk Museum of Art he asks these timeless questions of our contemporary experience in a digital world where cyberspace has turned inside out and envelope our vision and altered our bodies. He adds to the list the deeply psychological motifs of memory, trauma and grief onto the landscape of a body suffering with disease, or eyelashes stuck under foreskin. Although Atkins primary medium is film, in which he shows us a high definition 3D animated virtual world, he is not a video-artist but instead engages performance art, poetry, literature, music (both classical and pop) and the genres of horror and thriller films bringing them into soundscapes and installations. He projects immaterial video onto intensely present material walls that slant, tilt, prop or stand freely becoming “image-objects” that move off the screen into the lived experience or physical reality. Three slices of wall in the corners of the largest room face off against each in his immersive computer generated performance, Ribbons, 2014, the central work of the exhibition. (one of three works purchased by the museum). As the title of his exhibition suggests the works included were made in the last two years and reference the myth of the Ouija Board, used to contact the dead through short fragmented “text” messages, and the symbolism, belief systems, the occult it conjures.
On each wall the videos begin exactly the same with blackness sliced open by a household wooden door in that lets light flood into the darkness, we move through the door (or doors) all at the same time into a white room that only Atkins could create. The experience is that all the videos take place in the same white room but give us a different view. On one screen the initial image is cockeyed sign that reads “vapid proclivity” on another screen, we come face to face with a bright blue eyed skinhead shaven tattoo covered roughly twenty-something year old Dave who stark naked speaks directly to us saying “ Thanks X, so when I click it, um, the preferences list loads with choices all grayed out and I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong…help me…seriously I’m working to a deadline”. Here “deadline” is both a morbid reminder of our limited life and anxious sign of the urgency that accompanies being in the constraint stream of an always online world. The country ballad “Withered and died” by Richard and Linda Thompson comes on as if from a jukebox and Dave signs along it hits us affectively with melancholy. In the room there is only Dave and two black holes in the walls on either side of him, one a glory hole and the other a peephole, both holes lead into another room beyond the walls –a smoke filled pub where empty beer glasses line the bar and Dave is smoking a burning cigarette in one hand and a frothy beer in the other. Dave occasionally has writing scrawled backwards across his forehead it reads various at times “FML” or “ DON’T DIE”, his flaccid penis emerges poking through in the white space, thrusts through the glory hole while on another screen his nose protrudes through the hole , on the last screen he is peering through the peephole in darkness looking into the white room. Dave says “What do you know of love? And also I could drink under the table.” On a white table cloth sits a glass tumbler that fills with a stream of blood both corporal and carnal, Dave is crumpled naked under the table.
The recurring motifs of death, sex, disease, swellings, tumors, psychological pain and moments of humor in the face of that pain and tremendous loss are made intimate through the works directly engaging us as if the artist is performing in the room. Ed Atkins is among the most important artists in the loosely associated group known as the Postinternet generation. The term, although problematic, is associated with a circle of artists who came of age in a time when the internet moved from a novelty at the fringes to a necessity central to our everyday lived experience. This experience of the internet merging with life marked a change in subjectivity in the digital era which is a central theme to Atkins work. Postinternet is often traced back to the year 2008, a date that figures prominently in Untitled, 2015, Atkin’s newest work, which tellingly does not feature any videos but is instead made of silkscreened drawings in indian ink onto power-coated MDF panels that relate in scale to the body in size. The images move one into the other like a storyboard of of piles of body parts or naked bodies folding on each other.
His work plunges us head first into a whole universe with the failures and fragility of our contemporary embodied existence, the intimate dialog of draws us into his often pained internal interlocutor. The stream of conscious voice is strained with psychological trauma in one video he repeats “this is real blood dripping on my face” or “this is a real bruise”. Much of the work is loosely based on Atkins own autobiography on the loss of his father who died of cancer in a long protracted battle to the disease. Some of the source materials for Atkins work comes from the diaries his father left behind other from Atkins own poetry. He wrote “The diary in particular took on near mythical proportions. He had, we knew, been keeping it since he was sixteen… the colossal diary is almost completely insoluble. Where does one begin? At the beginning? At the birth of his first child? Marriage? Or is it only manageable in fragments? – aphoristic nuggets and sound bites chiseled off the monolithic whole and savored as the persistence of a perspective from when he was alive: one dazzling glimpse at a time. “
In a world where the endless stream of images is equally insoluble, Atkins has cut through directly to some of the most arresting and striking images of out time.