Death: the favourite subject of the self-sure male artist sliding into their stride. How could the world cope without me/him?! How would the world cope with out Ed Atkins? The themes in Us Dead Talk Love – death sex, corporeality through literature and cinema – are not exactly un familiar; and with this formality confident and cohesive show at the Chisenhale it seems that representation of these themes – as they have been changed by digital technologies – only being a lack or a gap or loss is the only option Ed Atkins can see as he relaxes into a well oiled slick-digitality formula.
Like a lot of Atkins work, Us Dead Talk Love presents to the viewer his now recognisable HD video-confessional and self-reflexive narrative: “Atkins describes the work as ‘a tragedy of love, intimacy, incoherence and eyelashes.” (Exhibition text, Chisenhale, 2013). Two large screens in the carpeted half of the gallery play host, to beautiful, 3D renderings of two bald, bodiless, heads. The heads reflect on immanence, narccism and contemporary representation with its hyper-simulation of ‘real life’ – of its textures and surfaces – while digital effects over-laid by Atkins (and made by 16yr olds – allegedly) simulate ‘real’ optical distortions (such as short focus and dust). But at the same time these additions, and the dialogue between the two heads, imply a loss, or dissolution of the body, of film in a materialist sense (its in HD), but also in terms of a new and now paradigmatic digital, virtual body or self which has lost all reference to its container.
It might just be this assuredness with which Atkins articulates all this, but as the two heads —looking strikingly like primordial versions of Atkins himself — reel off this live-recorded literary performance of the apparent abjection of sexual intimacy, which in this context seems contemptuous, that it appears that this digital of Atkin’s work is founded on something lost.
But because of textual variations that are there – such as the wood and paper installation propped around the back of the gallery – you have to argue that Atkins doesn’t simply see this as a one-and-the-other kind of binary. The central splinter in the narrative, an eyelash lodged under the narrator’s/Atkin’s foreskin, becomes a both a rupture in this narrativised self, lodging itself in the visual hermetics of the virtual world (you don’t get hairs or dust in digital film-stock) and so disrupts the idealised perfection of this digitised representational body. For Atkins this lodged lash is uncomfortable here because it is of the body, but is now itself now dead: it represents the intimacy of life, but lacks the depth of its once host. Of course this is suggests to the viewer the internal problematics or digital bodies, representing something both foreign and intimate — something once maybe alive, or even a copy of life – but Us Dead Talk Love never breaks out of this very linguistic and aesthetic encapsulation. It feels like a self-answering proposition.
Perhaps at the root of this is that the narrative is decidedly singular. It is conveyed via an image-object detached from all others. In spite of stock images (described as ‘footnotes’ by Atkins in the associated text) suggesting some sort of outside, we are unable to really understand the dialogue with any sense of relation or context. In the room we are positioned by a deliberate speaker–audience dichotomy defined by the half carpeting of the space – replete with dual screen digital projections, surround sound and unadorned 8×4 boards on one side and us, the viewer, sat in rows on the other — and it is this consolidated, minimalist understanding of the digital body as separate and like the literary character, alone —not as it exists in reality in polyphonic relation to many others. It is in this sense that Atkins seems fated to only see the image-object as a singular and therefore dead, entity.
So even while Us Dead Talk Love begins to pull out some interesting material tensions, reaching as it does out from HD flatness in to the plasticity of the installation, it all feels too tight, too biggest solo show yet, too much a finite (image)-object to really articulate the virtual or representational body in truly exciting terms. The digital body is formed by utterance and networks of exchange, not simply virtuosic handling HD video and writerly perfection and so Atkins is not going to be able to reconcile a lodged fragment in such an aesthetically and linguistically concise show.