So begins Ed Atkins’ video Us Dead Talk Love – physiologically and dissonant, narrated by a digitally-rendered, severed bald head. The centrepiece of Atkins’ solo show of the same name at Chisenhale Gallery is this two-channel digital video, which is screened in the middle of an auditorium styled room. The video consists mostly of disjointed graphics of this wobbling and roving head, hair-like squiggles floating across the screen, and occasional, erratic apses into operatic mantras. The narrator seems to be recounting an instance of love posthumously, from the grave of a two-channel projection (the projection is even deliberately angled so that shadows of light create sarcophagus-like blocks on the wall). Also in the exhibition are several panels leaned up against the main room’s large wall depicting dishevelled pillows (and squiggle-lines).
Death has been Atkins’ theme in recent videos, most recently “A Tumour” (2012) shown at the Bonner Kunstverein. It’s all-bizarre, done blankly and earnestly, and with an unconventional pairing of weird humour and casual meditative-ness. Sometimes Atkins’ narrator sounds clinical, the way an alien might perceive and describe the human experience of love. The very words “dead talk” in the title might well describe Atkins’ literary approach, as if the phrase itself were a verb, and the video was an instance of “dead talking.” As in other videos, “Us Dead Talk Love” seems to be a digital moving-image illustration of a piece of text (a transcript of the text was being sold by Chisenhale at the gallery counter). The piece relies above all on a highly-charged stream of language; Atkins’ associative animation is stream-of-conscious and disjointed, and seems to enact a slippage between text and video: the animated narrator sometimes only vaguely seems to be speaking the words on an audio-track, like a lazy and goofy illustration of semiotic slippage. “I, as in ‘I’.”
Unlike Ryan Trecartin’s YouTube-informed excavations of the consumer present, Atkin’s videos and texts are unabashedly literary, of the Modernist sort. Atkins seems to have borrowed Samuel Beckett’s favourite themes (death, sex, scatology), as well as his way of elevating the banal particular (a pillow, a urinal) into the cosmic (absence, detritus). Key here is Schkloskian ostranenie, or the estrangement of the everyday: an eyelash comes to seem like a slit across someone’s neck (the narrator is, again, beheaded). It’s refreshing to see these pitted against the technology of digital animation, which is playfully and often haphazardly done. Despite Atkin’s references to Maurice Blanchot’s tight equations (an orgasm = a tiny death), Atkins’ lexicon comes across as brash and fresh. Other times, his transcript seems adolescent. “A collapse of experience, of sensible apprehension” sounds like a college love poem constructed out of phrases from French phenomenology (from Merleau-Ponty, probably). More interesting are some of Atkins’ surrealist associations: “dead growing. / Stalactites, for example” is a perfect example of the kinds of posthumous accumulations Atkins takes as his theme. I’m curious to see where Atkins takes these pairings, and whether or not he will move past the grandiose, Homeric themes: death, sex, love. Or is Atkins, like his narrator, self-consciously “mistaking the utterly null for the terrifically important”?
Text: Pablo Larios
“Us Dead Talk Love”
Until 11 November, 2012
Chisenhale Gallery, London
Catch Ed Atkins in conversation with Mike Sperlinger
Tuesday 30 October, 7pm