Ed Atkins comes across as a writer who makes art. His body of work includes screenplays, audio, and videos that are the visual equivalent of a poem: sentences of image and sound are layered rhythmically, punctuated by repeated motifs. They seem structured by a kind of antilogic in which pace is crucial, as the London-based artist forms sequences of crescendos (such as a fast tracking shot of a snow-covered forest, to the climactic sounds of a washing machine’s spin cycle) that suddenly cut away before completion. One moment the screen could be filled with a romantic skyline, the next with crisp chroma-green. A Slade MFA graduate, Atkins had his first solo show at Cabinet, London in January, was selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2010 and is currently a LUX Associate Artist.
His most recent work, a trilogy entitled Death Mask, evolved after witnessing the death of his father. Yet if anything, as the layers of crystalline colour in the video Death Mask II: The Scent (2010) flow – as a bright orange, lemon-shaped object moves horizontally in and out of focus on a black screen, overlaid with dramatic organ-like drones, then turns acid yellow and multiplies, creating concentric kaleidoscope patterns accompanied by a mournful lilt – it delivers a feeling of elation. Atkins filmed these inanimate objects as part of a wider meditation on “that instant, or that transition between life and death, of becoming an image and a representation of a person – being able to look at a body that is devoid of being – seeing this person leave suddenly, to be replaced by just an object.” His understanding of how sound shapes image is also acute: by juxtaposing electronic and acoustic music with everyday noise (echoing John Cage), the aural human presence becomes potent – coughs, clicks, fumblings and blurry conversations add intimate emotion and tactility.
Overall, Atkins uses paradox as a revelatory tool: by combining classic structuralism with Hollywood sound motifs, high-definition video with visceral materiality, and pleasure with no climax, he forms plaintive collages spliced with moments of hyperreal ecstasy.
This article was first published in the March 2011 issue.