“A particularly complex and horrible film” is how Ed Atkins has described Ribbons (2014), the centerpiece of his recent exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries. Distributed between three screens stationed around the galleries—which were dimmed and carpeted to somber effect—the video is, as he suggests, abstruse and repugnant. But it is also flippant, melancholic, neurotically self-conscious and—at many points—deadeningly dull. The impact of the work is as irreconcilable as its many ill-fitting parts.
Ribbons unfurls a stream of over-glossed CGI, disjointed musical samples and non-sequitur-loaded dialogue. “Dave” is the video’s recurring figure—a naked, tattooed creation who soliloquizes in ungraspable streams of consciousness, swills lager and mimes to pop ballads. His pronouncements—flitting between high-modernist rambling and business jargon—seem jarring and concocted. Like a choirboy turned enfant terrible, he moans along at one point to Bach’s aria “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott.”
Billed as “part musical, part horror, and part melodrama,” Ribbons might be seen as a typical example of postmodernism—all scattergun allusion and aching self-awareness—brought up to date via the tropes and technology of the digital epoch. But, at the same time, the work is an irredeemable mess (and knowingly so)—not so much an artful inter-referential mosaic as a heap of broken images presented in a deceptively slick digital guise.
One senses the sheer effort involved in evacuating the video so effectively of subtext. Words such as “complicity” flash up like cinematic fanfares beneath an image of an empty whiskey glass. Black slurry cascades in a fine stream into the same glass. A hand turns the glass upside down. The screen goes blue and the words “Stalked Wed” appear. Meaning is in this way not so much multiplied or problematized as entirely annulled.
Dave has been called an “avatar” by several critics—and certainly he acts as a conduit for different idioms, affectations, genres. The kind of person who, if he existed, would be branded a fake, which is of course what he is—a digital skin-job. The impression is of a nervily oversensitive mind in which knowledge refuses to cohere. At the close of Ribbons, Dave apologizes for the “histrionic horrible mess” before his head deflates like a whoopee cushion. How far he represents a double (or, more likely, a caricature) of Atkins himself remains deliciously ambiguous.
Ribbons could be called silly and pretentious, but that is what it aspires to be—an outpouring of incoherent verbiage, redeemed by a willingness (albeit at the very last second) to puncture its own absurdity. The video’s strange mood of listlessness extends to a sequence of wall-leaning panels printed with nonsense prose, a kind of “adjective soup” that Atkins has decorated with doodled forget-me-nots. Amid the loquacious mire there are occasional flashes of apparent self-critique: “What will suffice to prevent disastrous interpretative divergence?” might be asked of Atkins’s entire show.
At the heart of the exhibition was a fundamental point about art in the age of hyperrealism. Dave is like a contemporary Galatea—the statue that Pygmalion fell in love with—who cannot quite make the transition from art into life, remaining painfully aware of his own constructedness. In Atkins’s blanched and unblemished virtual-reality world, it is the “virtual” that counts. Dave must remain a simulacrum, just as “meaning” (like realism, an overused and under-interrogated term) must remain unfixable.
It was not immediately obvious that the HD video in Ed Atkins’s brilliant new Chisenhale commission was, as the press materials described it, a “dialogue between two c adavers.” Us Dead Talk Love, though fed through two channels, is more like a meandering monologue. Its words issue from a disembodied male head-a commercial template “skin” rather than the likeness of any specific person-which appears periodically on one of the two screens, programmed by the artist in motion capture technology. The glut of surface detail on the computer-generated head makes its movements look clumsy and paradoxically less real, which is precisely what Atkins intends. Continuing his explorations from such earlier works as his “Death Mask” series (2010-11), the 30-year-old London-based artist raises questions about materiality, embodiment and sexual intimacy as well as the inherent constraints of all representational systems, including video imaging.
Although there is no real narrative, the script, which was made available for visitors to take away, opens with the discovery of an eyelash under the protagonist’s foreskin. This striking textual image sets the tone for what is to come, even though nothing very graphic is ever shown. Instead, we are given sanitized animations and transition effects: a computer-generated lemon, a languid Roman faun, flashes of saturated color, fabric slipping across the screen. These are all things we feel we have seen before, either in video-editing tutorials or art history books. The images are synchronized with a range of sound effects, including swelling choral music and loud machine clicks, and are sometimes accompanied by isolated spoken words-lash, ammonia, sexual, cadaver-that also appear on screen as subtitles. Indeed, Us Dead Talk Love seems to hinge on the contrast between verbal descriptions of an all-too-material embodiment and visual renderings of a world beyond desire and rot. At one point, a real human eye can be seen wearing a contact lens in chroma-key green, the color often used to add backgrounds in postproduction.
Atkins demarcated the installation space. The carpeted area presenting the angled screens was clearly separate from the audience seating, which was surrounded by 8-by-4-foot collaged panels leaning against the walls. The images on these panels-pillows, masking tape, CG brushstrokes, tiny hairs many times magnified-originated in the video yet are the product of photocopying and hand-tracing. As the artist informed us in the accompanying notes, the hairs were appropriated images too, used to give a familiar analog texture to the alienating digital surface. Seeking to disorient and discomfit the viewer at every turn, Atkins also made the video in an obsolete aspect ratio that the screens can accommodate but the equipment cannot, creating a mysterious spill of projector light past the screens and into the depths of the darkened space. It is ultimately unclear what he thinks of the digital technology he so deftly manipulates, except that it is strange: rather than bringing us closer to reality, it keeps us forever on reality’s periphery.
Photo: View of Ed Atkins’s Us Dead Talk Love, 2012, two-channel video installation; at Chisenhale.