Sometimes I suspect that the art that I like isn’t necessarily the art of my era. I will have to wait until the future for history to confirm this. Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the new media art of, say, Haroon Mirza or Pipilotti Rist. But on occasion I wonder whether what we call fine art or contemporary art is actually quite backwards-looking. That the art of ‘now’ isn’t objects or performance, film, paper or canvas, but that it is digital – and we can’t quite accept that yet.
Then I see something like Ribbons at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in sunny Hyde Park, and it really says something to me about optimism, darkness and life in the 21st century. The protagonist is an avatar, the artist is Ed Atkins, and the result is eliciting strong and polarized opinions.
The video installation itself is prefaced by text works, which carry on from the interpretation’s artspeak poetry; printed typeface augmented with hand-drawn cartoons, gestures and photocopied body parts. The artist invites us to expect “old powder rooms, haunted by the phantom smell of gunpowder, paranoia and anticipation of violence.” The term ‘misanthropic’ is used, along with ‘melodrama’ and, most intriguingly, ‘torettic injections.’ One imagines that all these words have been carefully chosen, given that Atkins was Whitechapel Gallery’s writer in residence in 2012-13.
The lead man, Ribbons, a CGI creation, sings of madness whilst his cigarette burns down to the filter, leaving a tower of ash. His head deflates amongst empty pint glasses, his hand squeezes a tumbler until it smashes into bloodless shards. The sound is arranged to lead the audience from screen to screen around the barn-like space. Semi-stand-alone videos of a head bouncing down stairs and a glory hole or two act as punctuation.
The aesthetic seems deliberately antagonistic. Ribbons is a skin-head Ken-doll, his body inscribed with ‘troll’ and ‘ass hole’ – homemade prisoner tattoos meet a teenage pencil case. His mouth opening and closing doesn’t always line up with the soundtrack – this isn’t a showcase of new technology for its own sake. There are allusions to aspects of homosexual culture, but he doesn’t appear to be judging, exploring or celebrating it. More using it as a style, or a means to take an idea to its conclusion, to present a lonely soul trapped simultaneously in the net and at the bottom of a glass.
The artist seems to delight in causing confusion. He re-tweeted one visitor who said: “Went to the Ed Atkins exhibition at Serpentine Sackler Gallery@SerpentineUK & had no idea what was going on at all!” and another who asked: “@Ed_Atkins what’s going on in his head? Is he a nutter or what?” To be shut out of the meaning on some level doesn’t ruin the experience for me: it works conceptually as he is dealing with navigating the, often dark and slippery, online world. Another criticism leveled at the piece is that it is somehow too masculine, or too extreme to be relatable. Whatever your view point, this is highly finished, ambitious work, which offers an antidote to too many works of contemporary art that are recycling old ideas, plain lazy or disappointing.
Atkins makes work for the modern world, but it belongs in a gallery context, due to its monumental proportions and inspired use of sound and space. He pulls us into a digital dystopia and the digital into the everyday. By using some familiar strategies, combining them with references to sexual subculture, a knowing use of typography, sound and pop music, he has produced a ‘new art’ – which perhaps only the future will find the words to describe, and perhaps only with hindsight we will completely understand.
Ed Atkins’ Ribbons continues at the Serpentine, London until 25 August 2014, free entry