In a world where fads can evolve, thrive, and die out in the span of a single week; where the aura of the image has dissolved into infinite repeatability and therefore complete disposability; and where postmodern indecision, apathy, and depression often seem to be the only reasonable responses to the constant barrage of brands, memes, and general e-detritus, it makes sense for artists to explore the dark side of our would-be techno utopia. The British artist Ed Atkins is one of a handful whose work manages to address these more human concerns within the digital realm—his hyperreal 3D video works revel in the sheer strangeness of the uncanny valley (that unsettling feeling evoked by representations of humans that come too close to reality) while also making moving commentary on the experience of the flesh-and-blood people who watch them.
Atkins is best known for works like Ribbons (2014), featuring iterations of drunken, soliloquy-spouting male protagonists who ruminate on perennial (and currently unfashionable) topics like love, loss, and loneliness. His work Even Pricks (2013), currently on view as part of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris’s Post-Internet -heavy group show “ CO-WORKERS - Network as Artist ,” takes a slightly different tack. Atkins evokes his signature mood of quiet desperation with comparably spare methods, stringing together a series of vignettes that seem as indebted to the trippy avant-garde films of the 1960s as they do video-game cutscenes and contemporary cinematic tropes. (Check out the exploding title sequences, with phrases like “This summer, destroy your life: Even Pricks.”)
The main characters of the seven-and-a-half-minute video are a talking chimpanzee (a recurring figure in Atkins’s work), a human hand giving the thumbs up, and a disheveled bed—a potent symbol for the introspective helplessness that often pervades his work. The linchpin for the piece is the hand itself. Evoking the ubiquitous Facebook symbol for “liking” something, the raised thumb is inserted into the ear, eye, nose, and belly button of a oversized (and immobile) human figure. Later, the digit collapses like an air mattress before being inflated far beyond its original proportions.
The metaphor here won’t be lost on regular users of social media, but recalling that these images are immaterial simulacra of bodies and objects opens up another reading: despite the high production value of these videos, there’s nothing behind these figures beyond reams of code. These are empty gestures made by empty bodies. In contrast to the accelerationist glee evidenced by some of his fellow artists in “CO-WORKERS,” Adkins seems to reaching for a more emotional, perhaps more “human” way of engaging with each other.