New York

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 18 seconds.

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 18 seconds.

Ed Atkins

Gavin Brown's Enterprise | New York

Ed Atkins, Ribbons, 2014, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 18 seconds.

Pixel-thin in aspect but frequently profound in effect, the disturbingly polished motion-capture video works of British artist Ed Atkins engage, and complicate, the sensory-emotional space known as the “uncanny valley.” First limned in the world of early robotics, the concept was an attempt to describe the disorienting feeling of revulsion that one experiences as artificial life forms approach—but do not quite achieve—exact human likeness. Obviously motivated in its formulation by modern techno-formal concerns, the idea is indebted to Sigmund Freud’s decades-earlier consideration of the uncanny, in which the psychoanalyst devoted considerable attention to unpacking the etymological subtleties of the German term for the sensation, unheimlich. It’s a word whose valences are well suited to the disconcertions of Atkins’s program—evoking both the unfamiliar and the “un-homelike,” but at the same time also the sense of something that was always there but which had previously been concealed, even from oneself, and which has suddenly, and irretrievably, become unhidden. The uncanny in Atkins, then, as in Freud, is finally as much about the strangeness within as the strangeness without.

Atkins’s works, here in the form of three multichannel HD videos presented on colossal screen arrays in the debut exhibition at Gavin Brown’s raw and sprawling new Harlem space, leverage both of these notions. Like a reflection in a mirror whose otherwise true surface is distorted by a subtle flaw, what looks back at us across the chasms he conjures—a cast of video-game characters seemingly gone physically and emotionally rogue, each performed by the artist and then re-embodied with CGI technology—is both strikingly familiar and oddly alien: in Hisser, 2015, a bereft man tries to stave off desperation as he futilely attempts to sing himself to sleep in his insomniac bed; the protagonist of Ribbons, 2014, is a sodden, tattooed drunk named Dave, slurringly holding forth at (and occasionally beneath) a bar table as boozy streams of liquid spray lasciviously into cut-crystal glasses; and in Safe Conduct, 2015, a traveler comes not just emotionally but also physically undone as he’s caught in a nightmarish airport security zone. Because Atkins so skillfully conjures scenarios that are relatively commonplace, the shock when he abruptly summons scenes of violence and catastrophe—dismemberments minor and major, outlandish encounters with objects and bodily substances queasily sloshing around in baggage bins, the wholesale disappearance of a house into a fathomless hell maw—is all the more vivid.

The pervasive mood of all three pieces is loneliness and an unrelieved sort of existential dread, the latter seeming all the more poignant somehow for the fact that the characters experiencing it do not in fact exist. Atkins is an inventive writer, and especially an adept collector and detourner of certain hackneyed sentiments and scraps of language: In Ribbons, for instance, the most formally and conceptually complex of the three pieces, cryptic phrases (A DEMAND FOR LOVE, LACK, STALKED WED, COLLARED AND CUFFED) flash across the various screens in the bright and empty manner of allergy-medicine commercials. Meanwhile, the running monologue of its bare-chested antihero—whose various crudely scrawled tats keep shifting from one self-abasing phrase to another (ASS HOLE, TROLL, BANKRUPT)—bubbles in the background, hovering just at the threshold of intelligibility and acting as a placeholder for all of the characters’ general inability to come to grips with the world or to communicate with others about it. Like Dave, all of Atkins’s avatars, slumping with their ever-so-slightly glitched physical correspondences through their just-about-persuasive worlds, undeniably stand on the cusp of the repulsively uncanny. Yet despite their want of native sentience, they nevertheless seem all too painfully aware of their own limits and deficiencies, of their inescapable liminality. They don’t quite look right outwardly, but Atkins also manages to insinuate that they somehow don’t quite feel right inwardly. His characters may seem to only speak for themselves and thus for no one; but when they beg for love and understanding, or at the very least mercy, they also in some improbably real-feeling way speak for us and our own hard-to-hide sense of the inexplicable, uncanny world.

Jeffrey Kastner