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Cabinet Gallery, London
14 January - 26 February
Reviewed by: Jack Hutchinson »
Fact and fiction collide in Ed Atkins' solo exhibition, 'Death Mask' at Cabinet Gallery, London. A recent Slade graduate known for his personal and fictitious incarnations, Atkins pushes your senses to overload through immersive and thought-provoking work. Harnessing the tension between human presence and mechanical process, his multidisciplinary practice involves video, audio, print and text.
On entering Cabinet Gallery, I am first struck by the sound. Make no mistake about it: Atkins' work is loud. It is uncomfortable to experience, a multiplicity of signs, symbols and noises that are incredibly disorientating. The focal point of the exhibition is Death MaskIII (2011), a thirty-four-minute long HD video installation inspired by the death of Atkins' father. Layer upon layer of disparate elements are fused together in a disjointed, seemingly incoherent fashion. Images of La Gomera, the last place Columbus saw land before reaching the new world, are intertwined with shots of matches being lit and brash segments of red and green. There is little in terms of relief, and when one block of subtitles read 'Let's breathe', you are tempted to agree.
Journey and movement characterise this overwhelming exhibition. Atkins' personal voyage when dealing with his grief has undoubtedly produced a powerful series of works, the strength of which lies in its duplicity. Historical placement is explored in two texts, Death Mask I and II. The former is a biography of Anna Maria Grosholtz, otherwise known as Marie Tussaud, founder of Madame Tussaud's wax museum. The subject of the second text is the British anthropologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace. Whilst these historical references are framed within notions of departure and arrival, you are left wanting a more solid explanation.
As with much work of this ilk, when faced with such an amalgamation of different reference points, your natural inclination is to try to piece things together in search of the 'answer'. There is a certain joy in examining the minute details, from familiar sounds to recognisable images, with Atkins manipulating memories in spectacular fashion. Nevertheless, it is not easy work to get to grips with and demands a certain level of attention and intelligence from the viewer. In fact, Cabinet Gallery did not produce a press release for the show and offered little in terms of explanations on my visit. For some people this level of secrecy would be infuriating, although in my view it was actually quite refreshing.
Atkins creates a sort of entrancing ambiguity, magnetic in its melancholic charms. He invites personal reflection on the part of the viewer, and despite using his own experiences as a platform, never slips into self-indulgent melancholy. Death Mask deals with what it is to be human, from happiness and loss to dealing with the fallibility of our own existence. One thing is for certain - Ed Atkins is a name to watch.
Jack Hutchinson is an artist, writer and educator. A specialist on the role of digital technology within the visual arts, he is Communications Officer for AIR: Artists Interaction and Representation through a-n The Artists Information Company. His writing has featured in a diverse range of publications, including Dazed and Confused, Garageland, Guardian Culture Professionals, Twin Magazine, a-n Magazine and Schweizer Kunst. Based in London at Bow Arts Trust, he is an active campaigner for artistic, legislative and economic measures that enhance artists' working lives and professional status. His drawings have featured in solo and group exhibitions across the UK.
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