Allegories of vulgarity and vulnerability on loop. Sophie McKinnon visits Ed Atkins’ New York exhibition I Like Spit Now.
Ed Atkins: I Like Spit Now
Gavin Brown Enterprises, New York
15 November 2019 to 19 January 2020
Perhaps some people attend writer and artist Ed Atkins’ readings just to indulge in the perverse pleasure of hearing his soft English voice read disgusting passages that introduce "charmless arm meat" and "warp-faces slicked with a cool gallon of balked grease".
Although his publications are standalone works made from words, they sometimes preempt and often inform Atkins’ visual material. What Atkins does with language – weaving adjectives like "lovely" and "gorgeous" with crude nouns and obsolete descriptors so that the whole thing curdles in your mind – is exactly what he does in the rest of his work. He starkly mixes the comfortable with the grotesque, survival with entropy, and the literal with the "super-vicious artificial".
I Like Spit Now is the second solo show of Ed Atkins at Gavin Brown Enterprises uptown on 127th St in Manhattan. The three-storey space is cavernous and industrial, with almost no sensation of the outside world. This is a perfect platform for the strange purgatory of Ed Atkins, whose disturbed, animated protagonists coexist with dim screen-scapes and digital debris. Two bodies of work are exhibited here, Old Food and Refuse. "What could be less digital than food?" Atkins asks, even though as we speak, a generation of viewers log onto youtube to watch "mukbang" (a Korean term) videos of people eating. Old Food employs eight synchronized videos on flat screens in a space also filled with surround-sound audio, didactic but indirectly related wall texts lasered onto wood and metal, and racks of business jackets in dry cleaning bags.
All of Atkins’ videos use high-definition animation, and characters or "avatars" created using body recognition technology. He maps the figures onto himself, so while they differ they still feel related to one another, with something human at their core.
These animations are buffered by physical materials hung as wall works – short texts (like recipes and lists of baby names) on long-lasting hardtack bread ("ship’s biscuit") and more texts embroidered onto linen and acoustic cladding. Some of the text comes from Contemporary Art Writing Daily, anonymous essays that dive into such pithy topics as the body’s ability to preserve itself, and the corporate anatomy of institutions. A number of the larger text panels are so wide you have to shuttle back and forth physically just to read them. Others appear to be eroding– they are partially burned, or inscribed in black text on black. This only heightens the unchanging character of the continuously looped sequences of the anguished video work.
All of this feeds into a particular rhetoric which questions our real-world emotional state in a hypothetical context. Central to much of Atkin’s work are his CGI-modelled figures, who display a repugnant combination of poor personal hygiene and over-worked pathos (or bathos, as Atkins has said). They appear in generic historic dress, distressed, mute, weeping, and dribbling. Before you have time to even consider their situation, you are repelled by them and their total ineptitude.
Good Man whimpers with a candle in the driving rain. In Good Wine, a medieval youth jogs despondent through a bucolic landscape and past a stationary piano. The fatigue of digital repetition is countered by the hollowness of the avatars, and the irresolution of their circumstances. Like digital food or ship’s biscuit that doesn’t spoil, it can never grow old. Something is lacking – just as the suit jackets lack bodies. These figures won’t learn, feel, or respond. They can only perform digital commands. This brings some relief to the whole experience. An inscription on one of the barely visible text panels calls them "emotional crash test dummies, as all literary characters are". But if we are "off the hook" from being involved, why does it still feel taxing?
Much like the erratic register of Atkins’ prose, the exhibition distorts our reading of what feels good, and it does so while teetering on the fine line between reality and artifice. The recurring piano motif by Jürg Frey drifting through the space feels good. It is comforting and moving. The constant weeping is bad. A slow-motion video of a sandwich meeting satisfying ribbons of mustard feels ok, but the little body parts sealed between the tomato and lettuce do not. Burps, wheezes, sighs, and the occasional dog-toy squeaker further discombobulate. It is sensory overload without sensory satisfaction, and clearly artificial but rooted in the uncanny valley of the real. I am unable to resolve how I feel.
First published ArtZone #83