Contemporary artist Ed Atkins’ latest works showcased at the Venice Biennale
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Contemporary artist Ed Atkins’ latest works showcased at the Venice Biennale

UK-born artist Ed Atkins’s high-definition, graphic avatars, video-art and text wrenches apart the isolated technology-driven lives of the millennials.

by Georgina Maddox Oct 09, 2019

Ed Atkins (born 1982) is a British contemporary artist best known for his video art and poetry. He recently showcased his work at the Arsenale, at the UK Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, and his installation Old Food (2017-2019) is loaded with historicity, melancholy, and stupidity. Here, Atkins has expanded his emo-terrain, tempering affecting autobiographical figuration with broader issues and citations.

The drawings that constitute Bloom (numbered one to ten and showed in the Central Pavilion at the Biennale) feature tarantulas walking across tentative hands or otherwise perching on a posed foot, each with the shrunken head of Ed Atkins where the spiders’ abdomen should be. Wreathed in arachnid hairs, Atkins’s face breaks the fourth wall and gawps at us, wearing an ambivalent, questionably conscious expression.

Most of Atkins’s early work features a white male who is usually semi-naked, lonely and misanthropic, with a palpable melancholy about them. His computer generated avatar hero is ‘rendered’ as HD graphic, troll, voyeur and perhaps, an artist.

In the background the audience or ‘voyeur’ grasps parts of a song and music, the swells of an orchestra, the murmuring of voices and waves of sub-bass. Ribbons, Atkins’s tour-de-force, is part musical, part horror, and part melodrama; Bach’s Erbarme Dich and Randy Newman’s I think it’s going to rain today are two of the songs featured as the background score to what he calls a ‘sub-horror genre’ that dominates his work. 

Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

One of the most prominent artists of his generation, Atkins works primarily with high definition video and text, exploiting and subverting the conventions of moving image and literature. Atkins’s art practice involves the layering of apostrophic text with high definition video. “In my work, the suck and the bloom of death and decay are channelled through technological tools at the height of contemporary image management,” writes Atkins in the monograph published by JRP Ringer on his work in 2014, titled Against Immortality as Such.

Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

Atkins was raised in Stonesfield, a small village outside Oxford. His mother was an art teacher at a public school, and his father a graphic artist. He earned his bachelor's degree from Central Saint Martin’s and later graduated from The Slade School of University College London with a master's degree in Fine Art.

Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

His most recent work that was on display at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery as a site-specific adaptation was centered on an augmented and appended version of the new multi-screen video work Ribbons. The exhibition transformed the Serpentine Sackler Gallery into an environment that was a submersion of syncopated sounds, bodies and spaces. This was his largest solo exhibition in a UK public institution to date.

Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

Presented alongside installations of text and images, accompanying videos with interjections, the exhibition underscored the ambivalent relationship that exists between real and virtual objects; between real and virtual conditions.

A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

“The Sackler exhibition will re-possess some sort of sub-horror genre; the old powder rooms, haunted by the phantom smell of gunpowder, paranoia and anticipation of violence, will emphasise a particularly phantasmatic aspect of Ribbons; the protagonist’s questionable corporeality, their presence, their performance of loss and monstrousness” said Ed Atkins in a statement about his Sackler Gallery show.

A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

Atkins’s work draws attention to the way in which we perceive, communicate and filter information. His videos combine layered images with incomplete or interrupted excerpts of singing, speech, subtitles and handwriting. Working with a specialist in computer generated animation, Atkins exploits the hyper-real surfaces produced by new software systems to create complex, nightmarish environments populated by virtual characters, avatars of ambiguous provenance and desires. Atkins has described the male figure that appears in these works as ‘a character that is literally a model, is demonstrably empty – a surrogate and a vessel’. Despite the emotive music and poetic syntax of the protagonists, their emptiness serves to remind the three-dimensional, warm-bodied viewer of their own physicality. Atkins currently lectures at Goldsmiths College in London and has been referred to as "one of the great artists of our time" by none other than Swiss curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
A gallery view of Ed Atkins’s Ribbons, at the Serpentine Art Gallery Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

The experience of the physical body in Atkins’s show was contrasted with and complemented by the durational performance being undertaken by Marina Abramović, whose exhibition ran concurrently at the Serpentine Gallery.

  • Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READS | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
    Ed Atkins, Installation view, Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London (11 June – 25 August, 2014) © 2014 READSImage Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery
  • A sketch on board, Ribbons by Ed Atkins, at the Serpentine Art Gallery | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
    A sketch on board, Ribbons by Ed Atkins, at the Serpentine Art Gallery Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery
  • A sketch on board, Ribbons by Ed Atkins, at the Serpentine Art Gallery | Ed Atkins | STIRworld
    A sketch on board, Ribbons by Ed Atkins, at the Serpentine Art Gallery Image Credit: Ed Atkins, Courtesy of Serpentine Art Gallery

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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