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Montreal
Tammer El-Sheikh
Ed Atkins at DHC/ART
May 10, 2017

The CNN headline reads: “A loud crash, then nothing: Sinkhole swallows Florida man.” Jeff Bush was buried alive with his bed, dresser, and TV under his Hillsborough County home in 2013. Modern Piano Music, media artist Ed Atkins’s exhibition at DHC/ART and his first exhibition in Canada, recasts this tragedy as an HD captivity narrative. The artist’s ur-gadget is a motion capture camera that transmits Atkins’s facial expressions and gestures to various hyper-realistic avatars or “surrogates”: a smiling monkey, a tattooed barfly, and a tormented middle-class everyman. From a scrap pile of dead metaphors, twitching body parts, and stubborn markers of gendered, racialized, and class-specific identity, Atkins excavates a battered figure of the 21st Century man.



Ed Atkins, Even Pricks, 2013, video

Atkins’s best-known protagonist is a strangely sympathetic character. Something compels us to look past his sniveling, rehearsed apology for an unspecified offense and his painfully lonely jerk-off session with a deck of Rorschach cards. Perhaps we forgive him because we know his days are numbered. In Hisser, his room starts to rumble before collapsing in on itself. In Happy Birthday!! we catch a glimpse of a forehead tattoo that reads “1950 – 2009.” The artist describes this character as a “middle-class, white male in a horrible looping nowhere, who nevertheless demands your empathy.”

In Even Pricks, a sad-looking chimp starts to beam against a powder-pink background. A phallic thumb deflates and inflates, turning from the ubiquitous “like” to the less common “unlike” position, before diving into a soft belly or rising slowly into a nostril. Generic movie trailer titles come at us through clouds, in flames, or from behind broken glass to steer the reading of the pictures. One assures us that there is “almost always a thing to grip,” while another pleads, “we just got home from work” before a view of Jeff Bush’s disappeared room.

The operatic multichannel video installations Ribbons and Safe Conduct lead us into the darkest corners of taken-for-granted spaces like a smoky bar or an airport security check, where personal identity is lost and sought, stripped away then reclaimed in pieces, or rehearsed in crocodile tears and desperate soliloquies. The first features a shirtless tough guy soften, collapse, and pull himself together again behind a long line of empty pint glasses. With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he sings tenderly about “overflowing human kindness,” launches into a few bars of Bach’s Erbarme dich, Mein Gott, and then apologizes for his loss of emotional control. If our empathy isn’t inspired by this performance, our pity is commanded by more movie trailer titles, this time alerting us to the character’s “lack” and “desperate search for love.”



Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016, video

Safe Conduct is the show’s most riveting piece. This time a middle-class traveller in a sweat suit is unloading vital organs, a gun, a laptop, and other precious belongings into buckets for an airport security check, or bound and buckled-over in what looks like an interrogation room, or strapped into a seat on a British Airways flight that will eventually be blown out of the sky. The muscular textures of Ravel’s Bolero march the story forward to this chilling conclusion. The atmosphere of the work is disturbingly familiar in our post-9/11 era of constant surveillance, routine x-ray scans, and racial profiling at airports. Atkins’s motion capture technology is perfectly grafted to this paranoid moment and the installation is haunted by what he calls the “bad science of phrenology” and various disciplinary technologies for inscribing moral uprightness or degeneracy upon the body’s surface.

Too often new media work is caught in a perpetual present. By contrast, Atkins recalls pop culture caricatures of the past. From Uncle Tom and Charlie Chaplin to Speedy Gonzales and a litany of “hand-wringing Jews, gesticulating Italians, and hot tempered Greeks” in Hollywood films, “animatedness,” as literary scholar Sianne Ngai notes, has long functioned as a marker of racialized, gendered, and class-based otherness. Modern Piano Music bravely folds its “captured,” “ripped,” and “rendered” protagonists into this sordid but important history of animation.


DHC/ART: http://dhc-art.org/
Ed Atkins: Modern Piano Music continues until September 3.


Tammer El-Sheikh is a writer and teacher based in Montreal. His art criticism has appeared in Parachute, Canadian Art, ETC and C Magazine.

 

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