Out of all of the weird, toned-down long distance calls over the past 16 months, British artist Ed Atkins’ check-in with his mother certainly wins an award for pandemic alienation.
It was August, during a brief relaxation of European travel restrictions, and Atkins had traveled to Berlin from his home in Copenhagen. He’d spent the first half of 2020 thinking about how he could combine sophisticated computer graphics with free-flowing conversation – and now in Germany he tried to speak normally while sensors recorded his every gesture and twitch. His other artistic collaborator was his mother, Rosemary, who was on the other end of the phone line.
“We stayed in a wonderful, rundown hotel,” Atkins recalls. He sat alone while a team from Mimic, a Berlin studio specializing in motion capture animation, “sat in the next room, like members of the Stasi. They monitored me as I sat awkwardly in full body lycra and an unwieldy head rig with a GoPro on it. “
Back in England, his mother spoke hesitantly about her own childhood and marriage – the promises she once felt, the disappointments with which she now lives. Atkins tried to bring back memories of her past, but his body was soaked with sweat. His neck ached from the headgear. Cameras rolled inches from his face and in every corner of the suite. And meanwhile “two German men in the next room overheard everything I say to her.”
It was, the artist tells me on a sultry New York afternoon in front of the New Museum, “that phyllo of ridiculous levels of performance” – and now it has been translated into “The Worm”, the animation at the heart of his new show there. The artist’s movements animate a digital substitute who resembles a kind of television presenter who moves on his mid-century modern chair and sweats under virtual Klieg lights. But while Atkins’ body has been replaced with an avatar, the soundtrack is not post-edited at all: just the artist and his mother, made up of ones and zeros, but all too human.
“Dad was very insecure about his physical self,” confides his mother in the voice-over. Later she says softly, “I don’t really fit the cliché of being depressed.” We watch the TV presenter scratch his CGI nose, shuffle in his chair, crack his fingers; it’s hard to listen to. “Oh, mom …” replies the son – or the avatar.
During a break from installing the New Museum show entitled “Get Life / Love’s Work,” we collected over $ 6 of iced coffee. Atkins talks about the most mysterious poetry and the latest computer graphics software with equal naturalness, and at 38 he still has a baby face that is set off by strands of gray hair. It’s a face that I know and don’t know. Most of the time I’ve seen it in his art behind a computer generated mask.
Most of his ultra high definition videos feature a single avatar that the artist dons like a theatrical costume. Alone in his studio, he performs her facial expressions and movements with prosumer facial recognition technology, sends her through Grand Guignol tortures and slapstick pratfalls and speaks her poetic scripts in ghostly voice-over. They have skin and stubble that is so convincing it feels perverted, and bruises that shine like puddles after rain.
The videos have made him one of the most renowned artists of his generation. Barely 20 years old, he had solo exhibitions in leading museums in London, Paris and Amsterdam. But what Atkins affirms here at the New Museum – where his exhibition includes not just computer-generated videos, but also painting, poetry, and even embroidery – is that the age-old “intersection of art and technology” could hardly be less interesting to him. What really drives him are love and boredom, horror and regret: the lingering emotions that our technologies cannot contain.
“The work may appear to be related solely to these technological issues and has been associated with terms like ‘post-internet’,” said Laura McLean-Ferris, chief curator of the Swiss Institute in the East Village. work a decade. “While these media forms are very important aspects of the work, Ed also has a very strong literary quality that may have been overlooked before. You are animated by a grief that is irrepressible and unruly and somehow oozes out of your work. “
“In the beginning, a lot of the work came from my father’s death,” Atkins recalls today. “You still have a body and it will die and you will die. Nothing changes about that… ”- and he points to my iPhone, faithfully records our chat and immediately converts our speech into a sufficiently written transcript.
Atkins grew up in a village outside Oxford, where his father worked as a graphic artist and his mother as a secondary school art teacher. “There was an abundance of painting and more classic things at home,” he says, “and it was somehow inevitable that I ended up going to art school.” But he was also fascinated by the cinema, especially the dark and funny animations by the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer , and even more the pyrotechnic postmodern literature by Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover.
In 2009 he graduated from London’s Slade School of Art, the same year his father died of cancer. Death, loss, distemper, weakness: this has followed his art ever since. In his groundbreaking work “Us Dead Talk Love” (2012), two decapitated heads interview each other about eyelashes, hair follicles, the smallest details of their absent bodies. Your eyebrows twitch. Your skin shows razor burn. In a strange empty verse they speak of the flesh and blood that they really do not have, the “living excretions of two corpses in stupid congresses”.
“Ed’s work was incredibly new and shiny – it looked like CGI paintings of depressed men!” Recalls British-American artist Danielle Dean, who attended art school in London with Atkins. “It was like the experience of going to the cinema and being immersed in a digital universe; All of this happened in the gallery. I had never seen such a level of affect before. “
His avatars are especially masculine, especially white, especially English – and often display the familiar emotional hangups of this subclass. “Help me to communicate without humiliation, darling,” pleads the avatar in “Ribbons” (2014): a drunk skinhead who collapsed over half a liter of beer, who coughs and burps, but also a fine piece of brook (in Atkins ‘Voice) sings. “Old Food”, which was shown at the last Venice Biennale, shows a stunted child who screams rivers while taking piano lessons as if his body were just a bag of tears.
They speak in distant, sometimes lazy verse that Atkins utters himself, and in fact, he is both a writer and an artist. (“Old Food” is both a video series and a book of prose poetry, and in the Neues Museum “The Worm” lies protected on a sheet of paper that is embroidered with poetic fragments composed with artificial intelligence.) Depending on your mood, yours Talk to break your heart or roll your eyes. “It’s about something that has to do with identity and white masculinity, but without necessarily being very critical.” Dean is watching. “The avatar can be straightened up and perfected, but it also allows for moments of the sad, depressed white man who is not quite good enough.”
Here, however, is the critical point: these avatars are not “characters.” They have no names, no background stories, no motivations. (If you’re into that sort of thing, I suggest you stick with Netflix.) They’re more like bins or bins. They are empty shells that, says Atkins, “allow him to linger in places that are otherwise too uncomfortable”.
They aren’t even that fancy in the backend – just standard characters that anyone can buy, animate, and speak from a PC. It only took me a minute as I scrolled through the ready-to-use personalities on the TurboSquid.com 3D marketplace to find the generic white avatar who starred in Atkins’ 2015 video “Hisser” and apologized and dreams that a hole in the ground will devour his house. (You can buy it yourself for $ 349.)
The exact same guy serves as Atkins’ avatar in “Safe Conduct,” which appears in Gavin Brown’s Enterprise shortly after Brexit and leads him to a monstrous parody of the British Airways security video. The avatar pushes his own brain and liver through the airport metal detector and the organs fall into the plastic tray with a hilarious crunch.
His use of pre-made avatars goes back to Annlee, the dirt cheap Japanese manga character that Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought and “freed” in 1999. Back then, these store-bought virtual beings were little more than line drawings. Now they are almost lifelike. And Atkins uses her almost-but-not-quite humanity as a shield, prison and funhouse mirror.
“Part of this work is on a dysmorphic question,” suggests Atkins. “Or at least an inheritance of the body contempt that is certainly part of using avatars, if I’m honest. I want to perform in all of these things, but I don’t like my body. It’s kind of from my mother, and I know that her relationship with her body kind of came from her mother. It’s a kind of pathology. “
That pathology certainly makes itself felt in the new work, which is Atkins’ first video to feature a different voice than his own. There is a touching moment on “The Worm” when Atkins ‘mother remembers dressing up in costume to get her parents’ attention. “It was really to get some kind of, um, answer, I suppose,” she says cautiously as Atkins’ reactions appear on a waxy digital puppet. “But also to maybe, uh, become a completely different character.”
Like mother like son. “The reason I want to use this technology is because it shorts a bit,” he says. “The point has to be that you can see through things that would otherwise not be available. Otherwise I would just film myself talking to my mother. “
Ed Atkins: Get the Work of Life / Love
Through October 3, New Museum, 235 Bowery, Lower Manhattan; 212-219-1222; newmuseum.org. Presale tickets are required.