Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013) – the main piece and title of Ed Atkins’ solo show at Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie – begins with the parting of a curtain of luscious computer-animated hair to expose a fantasy world of synthesized computer graphics. Projected onto a large screen propped in the corner of the main space, the HD video features looping sequences: a pulsating amoebic droplet, an explosion, a vacuous stellar universe, a deep blue ocean, a golden desert-scape. Effervescent pops, clicks, power drills and cymbals punctuate Atkins’ sharp edits. A young hand fondles hypnotically-falling water. Another hand appears, petrified – as if unearthed from a Pompeiian dig. His choice of scenery acts as quixotically mundane eye candy – like the default settings of desktop wallpaper.
Alongside this piece Untitled 1–9 (2013), a series of enlarged, black and white photocopy prints on MDF, perfunctorily leaned against one side of the room and continued on to fill a smaller adjoining space. These collages depict the half-loop hair dye swatches that are used as colour samples in cosmetic shops. Here they look like foreshortened infinity symbols.
Back on screen, Atkins’s HD avatar appears, casually seated, nude and alone. The figure wears white earphones – a surefire signifier of social disengagement. He also flaunts an impossibly buoyant mane of dark hair that moves like a shape-shifting sea creature. The varied scenes wipe across the screen like in the online Chatroulette. In each environmental context, the same avatar appears with subtly altered physical features and emotional tones – apathetic, defeated, sorrowful, indignant – reciting the artist’s complex script which is also provided in booklet form. The text is rife with doubt and desperate longing: ‘And this whole thing a concession, really. A compromised surrogate for a reAL fucking experience.’
Using a combination of voice-overs, character monologues and highlighted sloganeering reminiscent of Barbara Kruger, Atkins’s hyper-real avatar conjectures at his own aimless disaffection, engaging a style of metaphysical poetry expressed through the language of the digital. He navigates a discussion about the immaterial and material, speaking of distancing, mortality, emptiness and deprivation. The woeful soothsayer envelops himself in chamber music but is caught listening cynically, albeit nostalgically, to A Whole New World from Disney’s 1992 film Aladdin. The aesthetics point to a vision of the future but the content grounds a humanity of the present searching for purpose and intimacy. He draws in pop cultural and social policy references, equating the reckless development and usage of guns to that of computers, describing societies dysfunctional relationship to these man-made objects as ‘A kind of INDIgeSTION the realisation of this empathetic failure.’ Atkins is shoving his finger down the open fistula in the gut of society in an attempt to release the hiccups of misguided social mores.
At intervals throughout the video the avatar pauses to perform a refrain from the Gilberto Sorrentino poem, The Morning Roundup (1971): ‘I don’t want to hear any news on the radio about the weather on the weekend’. He finishes the recitation then breaks the fourth wall by tapping at his encapsulating screen, invoking a white glow. Stuck and defeated, our long-haired avatar is doomed to remain inside the video, subject to the surface limitations of the screen. By defining and breaking down these boundaries, Atkins exposes the magician behind the curtain. He frustrates any attempt of suspended belief, as if tempting the audience with a handful of gold sand, knowing that it is impossible to hold on to.
In the back room of the gallery played the video Paris Green (2009). Watching this earlier work of Atkins one sees the development of his stylized techniques. Scenes are accented with audio cues – sounds made by a disembodied hand playing guitar strings with an ancient chiseled arrowhead. Filling the screen are panning sequences of a rainforest, a falling staff of fire, the moon, shots of fluorescent studio lighting and chroma-key screens. But, Paris Green (2009) feels more like a loose study and is overshadowed by the tighter Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013). Thematically, the two videos work together in both deconstructing their own constitution in an attempt to bridge connections between nature and digital manipulations.
Pitted against other young contemporaries – digital media artists like Ryan Trecartin or Shana Moulton – Atkins’s work sets itself apart with its rich philosophical edge. He manipulates the technology of scientific imaging and video game CGI as tools to speak about consciousness and mortality. For Atkins, the more ‘real’ he makes his work, the more ‘dead’ it becomes. The artifice of digital media seems like a masturbatory conceptual device he uses to grapple with conceits of perceptive experience. At a moment when technological developments are restructuring the foundations of social interaction, Atkins’s approach urges pause for existential evaluation.