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.