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Ed Atkins’s Ribbons at Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi comprised three looping video works shown in three different rooms. All works employed Atkins’s now trademark pared back, grimey CGI–animation–style. Each work was projected onto a large, white, timber screen propped against a wall in each of the spaces, with four speakers for each piece, creating an immersive visual and aural experience.
All the works featured a white, male character in his late twenties, with cropped hair and an English accent. Most usually undressed, the figure crouched uncomfortably beneath a small circular table, clutching the single, tubular table leg; or he was sitting at a table in a bar, surrounded by empty pint glasses, smoking; or he was standing behind a wall looking, or sticking parts of his body (fingers, nose, penis), out of a glory hole in the wall. In each place he ‘looks to camera’, making observations about his situation that make little to no sense — some observations are interrupted before he can finish his sentences. The language employed throughout is so empty (or so full) of meaning that it is difficult to discern what this character means.
Each video work seemed at first extremely scattered, non-narrative, hyperactive, and highly sleazy/sexualised; the central figure appears and disappears, he sings, he pours fluids into whiskey glasses, he turns empty whiskey glasses upside down, he hides, he calmly makes claims (often accompanied with subtitles), he responds to sounds and music in his world, he is a talking head interview, he is a pole dancer, a philosopher, he is a depressed alcoholic…
Pithy comments appear in bombastic TV game show–style fonts. A paper plane flies into sight and unfolds itself to reveal the words: ‘Help me communicate outside of peremptory assault, my love.’ All the while viewers can hear things in the background go thump, click, whirr, or, at times, snippets from old pop songs. At one stage the words ‘REFUSE THE GROUND’ appear in what looks like a title from a ’90s evangelical Christian TV show. From time to time a person/element/code called ‘X’ is mentioned to us by this man, this figure, this ‘protagonist’.
On the body of this protagonist words appear; some look like tattoos, some like photoshopped marks across a part of his body. The photoshopped words seem flat: they do not follow the contours of the CGI-generated skin. It is as if we have wandered onto a Kafka-esque penal colony, but without anything to discuss. Some tattoos relate to ‘incidental’ objects outside of this figure’s body; for example, on the protagonist’s forearm, as he picks up a glass of liquid, we can see the words ‘wet thing’ with an arrow pointing towards the glass. The tattoos on his forehead, chest, knuckles often change, from FUCK THE HATERS to BOTULISM to BRILLIANT to BANKRUPT, etcetera. Some of these words are written back to front on his forehead, presumably so he can read them from a mirror — thus another private life of his is suggested. Words appear as images, images as words, or utterances, or in gestures; language is disembodied, decontextualised, emptied of use … all that seems to matter is that the viewer somehow receives this language, which has been reduced to something like code.
The three video works gesture towards types of problems: problems with sincerity, focus, and cliché. For brief moments this at times beautiful collage/montage of words, sounds, graphics, and gestures gives a glimpse as to the nature of addiction one might harbour for recognition. When these moments of argument appear, there is an interruption and we are brought into another part of Atkins’s semiotic universe, shunted to another place where the previous rationale is made redundant, where any gathered visual/graphic hierarchies, or patterns of logic or thought dissolve.
‘…All the same, publicly, I fill syntactic holes of my own volition, thank you…’ is a line in the (non) press release — an eight page text, a sort of stream of consciousness, titled Hammering at the bars. ‘…So what happens is I cement with coarse-ground double expletives sprayed in arcing salvos, X sent out with the plosive.’ The writing here gives an indication as to the manner of the visual work on show: elliptical, graceful, witty, evocative, vivid, confusing, yearningly incarnate, unashamedly solipsistic, conservative.
There is one moment within each discrete piece when the protagonist, his head resting on a table top among a scattering of empty pint glasses, his cigarette smouldering but not burning away, coughs, then looks up at us and breaks into song, accompanied by swelling German chamber music. He sings in duet with a female soprano voice. With this, the space of the world we are being shown at once conflates and disintegrates. The image of the generated world suddenly becomes less important than trying to imagine at what register, what layer, one might gain some improbable traction on the consequences of this cadaverous, moving-image-world. The singing head stops, apologises, then deflates with a short, comic wheeze.
Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014. Three channel 4:3in 16:9 HD video with three 4.1 channel surround soundtracks. Duration 13min 19sec. Installation views Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin and Cabinet London. Photograph Nick Ash.