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Ed, Ego, Super-Ego: On Artifice and Ed Atkins

in Ark Review/Essays by

If, like me, you live on Denmark’s largest island and if, like me, you enjoy novel audiovisual experiences, chances are you took the time to visit the recent exhibition, Being There, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. If, however, you do not live on or near Zealand, Denmark; do not like novel audiovisual experiences, and, consequently or for other reasons, did not recently visit Being There at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, you may nevertheless be aware of the contemporary British artist Ed Atkins and his disarming oeuvre of virtual personae.

To be expediently reductive, I could gloss Ed’s work as combining the industrial and/or creative practices of computer-generated character animation (which is these days most effectively achieved by means of facial and bodily motion capture), cinematic sound design, prose–poetry (or lyrical collage), and acting. He wields his verbal and digital tools equally masterfully in exploring such themes as existence and mortality, memory, intimacy, virtuality (and, by implication, materiality), and so on. But the preceding description, in relating form to ostensible function, is more or less sterile and does little to get at the heart of what Ed’s work might, in fact, be about, or for.

I have a rather fanciful hypothesis as to where the nexus of Ed’s art really resides. Not its raison d’être per se, but its perhaps-barely-conscious ulterior motives. I have a sneaking suspicion that one or more dimensions of Ed’s art resides at or below the peripheries of Ed’s very own awareness, and I hope that you’ll join me in this syntactically masturbatory exposition that maps Ed Atkins’ drives, motivations, ideation, creative output, and putative rationale to a Freudian model of the psyche. (Funny, isn’t it, how tripartite phenomena are often inherently compelling? Not necessarily convincing, but attractive nonetheless. From the Hegelian dialectic to the Western syllogism at large, three does indeed seem to be a magic number.) Hopefully, by the end of it, I’ll be able to say something about the super-secret hidden stratum of humour in Ed’s work, thereby elegantly dovetailing this meandering musing with this month’s theme while also convincing you, implicitly, that you haven’t wasted your time in reading this half-baked drivel.


It’s apt to first describe the piece recently exhibited at Louisiana—Ribbons (2014). The video installation-cum-triptych comprises three similar-but-different films, each of 13 minutes and 19 seconds in duration. At times, the video and audio sync up across two or all three of the tall projections, seemingly and fleetingly displaying a selfsame computer-generated rendering. But in spite of the well-timed overlapping segments and continuity of protagonist, each screen’s video diverges significantly, each cohering as a palpably unique narrative. The trio of screens document the free-associative, beguiling, and nominally perverse actions and inner-monologue of Dave; a tattooed, skinheaded, yet eloquent avatar animated and voiced by Ed himself.

As the description of Ribbons at Louisiana observes, Dave seems stuck in a kind of “digital purgatory”: His material environment alternately takes the form of a brightly-lit white room and a darkened pub, both of which are spartanly furnished, housing little other than empty pint glasses and dust motes suspended timelessly in shafts of light. Dave ruminates and soliloquises, chugs different coloured spirits from a whiskey glass, sits naked under a chrome café table, coquettishly straddling its singular cylindrical leg; he pisses, farts, and bleeds; he smokes (or, rather, lets his cigarette burn down); sings excerpts from Randy Newman’s bittersweet, oft-covered I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, sublime verses from Johann Sebastian Bach’s oratorio Matthäuspassion (“Erbarme dich, mein Gott …”; “Have mercy Lord, My God, for the sake of my tears”), and Henry Purcell’s 1685 drinking song, ‘Tis Women Makes Us Love”; the latter two ditties delivered in a remarkably serviceable falsetto that betrays Ed’s presumably half-sincere love and unexpected knack for vocal work.

The Ed we meet in interview is a million miles away from the Ed who gets a jolly from having Dave, his digital proxy, waggle his virtual dick around in the faces of Denmark’s retired gallery-goers.

Dave’s surreal, anarchic, reflective episodes of drinking, evacuating, and (eventually) deflating like a balloon are punctuated (or perhaps held together) by interstitial text animations, typically expressing ideas or phrases as equally schizoid as his spoken words. “Help me communicate outside of peremptory assault, my love,” reads one chunk of stylized, dynamic WordArt. “Help me communicate without debasement, darling,” Dave pleads aloud, elsewhere in the piece. “A demand for love … REBUTTAL!”—the gilded words fly towards the camera through a cloudscape, underscored by a tongue-in-cheek lens flare that only J. J. Abrams’ mother could enjoy in earnest. It’s during sequences such as these that one might be inclined to feel particularly attuned to the uncanny agreeableness and agreeable uncanniness of giant three-dimensional text flying towards oneself through the sky as a legitimate method of communication in contemporary visual cultures. (Is it Songs of Praise I’m reminded of, or Star Wars?) The airborne statements are accompanied acoustically by seemingly-diegetic, cinematic whooshes, shimmers, and low-end rumbles reminiscent, in a parodic and thoroughly self-aware way, of big-budget blockbusters featuring lots of computer-generated imagery.

It’s perhaps time to dispense, then, with my tripartite reading. So far, I have described Ed’s work; that which is manifest on-screen. You’ve probably watched the YouTube videos embedded in this webpage by now. Good. Then bear with me as I approach the three components of the psyche, according to Freud (who, by the way, was adamant that cocaine is in no way addictive—infer from that what you will), in an illogical order: Id, Super-Ego, Ego.

In Ribbons, I take Dave’s articulations, the intermittent subtitles, the interstitial text, and his endearingly deviant actions as representative of one and the same thing: The artwork’s gestalt as a clear manifestation of both the character’s and the artist’s unconscious, or of the character as symbolic of our unconscious, and Dave as somewhat representative of us all, in all our quasi-depressed, self-pitying, neo-liberal glory. Most explicably, the weird words and depraved dramaturgy are Ed’s own private thoughts, primarily and specifically. They’re Ed’s id. They represent us all—symptomatic of the human condition as they are—but they’re Ed’s id first and foremost. Homages; dramatized re-enactments, perhaps, of Ed’s personal stream of unconsciousness, which, we infer from his scraps of online poetry, is liable to bubble to the surface during hazy sessions of drinking miniature spirits on what we assume to be low-budget European flights. I recognise this garbled, babbling, sometimes-juvenile, semi-dissociated “word salad” voice as having on occasion been heard internally when I smoked far too much skunk or snorted too much ketamine during my undergraduate studies. (Fieldwork, I consider it.) Sometimes there are two or more voices but seldom do they make sense. If one can differentiate them and parse them meaningfully, then they can be heard to be connotative of largely inexplicable, mutually contradictory, cognitively dissonant wants and needs, marked by childlike evocations. Honestly; if you’ve never almost broken your brain with chemicals, I highly recommend it. No, seriously. Unless your family has a history of mental illness, that is. But I digress.

So that’s what I think Ed strives for in his work: Reconstructions of the id, as mediated by minimally coherent verbal or visual syntax. This claim seems even more defensible (for me, at least) when you read his aforementioned poetry. Why, then, is the Ed we see and hear in interviews so far from admitting this? In conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator extraordinaire, Ed comes off as an exceedingly well mannered chap. He’s affable, articulate, and polite. He would never piss or bleed in a whiskey glass and drink it, as his character, Dave, tends to. He asserts that his creations are mere vessels for exploring themes of philosophical and general human interest, as itemised earlier. Standard artist patter, inflected with a discernible (but somehow not off-putting) air of intellectual coolness that’s so typical of Goldsmiths, University of London, where I conducted my aforementioned fieldwork; where Ed now apparently lectures. The Ed we meet in interview is a million miles away from the Ed who gets a jolly from having Dave, his digital proxy, waggle his virtual dick around in the faces of Denmark’s retired gallery-goers.

Why could one Ed not occupy both roles? Why could he not present himself as sophisticated and collected in interviews, yet vulgar and authentic in his artworks? Arguably he does do this, but the two are never explicitly linked, by admission. Clearly, then (at least, per my twisted logic), Ed in interview is the super-ego: The hyper-aware veneer of “morality” that, in combining the social conscience and the ideal self, betrays Ed’s awkwardness and possible perplexity at having been propelled into the five-figure intersection of aesthetic expression and grossly conspicuous—though not wholly lamentable—commodity fetishism and (probable) money laundering commonly referred to as the art world. I like to imagine Ed as, like myself, working class by upbringing and at heart, despite having been raised in counties containing Oxbridge universities. I like to imagine Ed as someone who can scarcely comprehend how his creations—pixel-perfect in planning and flawlessly executed though they are—have such widespread appeal and, presumably, such high price tags. He’s been described as “one of the great artists of our time,” for goodness’ sake. But you gotta play it cool, right? Just go into the interview, sit in the chair, say the things, secure the next exhibition! If that were me, I’d be precipitously aware of how easily one could fuck up and fall out of favour with the glitterati, perhaps inadvertently ending one’s own stint in the limelight by having ventured too close to the truth, with regard to the degree to which one’s own boorish imagination is manifest in the works. (Sure, Jake and Dinos Chapman get away with perversities of the highest order and still remain in good artistic–industrial stead. But they largely palm off their fixation with the gory macabre on history and other things external to the self.) Ed’s interview persona—the super-ego—is the least honest part of the equation, and yet the most vital in terms of visibility and the perpetuation of the situation which enables the production of these brilliant artworks as constitutive of his career.

Nobody will ever guess that Ego Ed actually just really likes dicking around with computer graphics! Nobody will ever guess that Id Ed is in fact really rather fond of the booze, and has a persistent—perhaps unhealthy—fixation on his ex!

Here comes the resolving segment of the analysis, then. It doubles as the sincere part. If it should seem, so far, as though I’ve been criticising Ed, then you’ve been intentionally misled. I love Ed. I secretly want to be him. I don’t just identify with my own subjective reading of his artworks; I love reading between the lines in said interviews, too. And here’s what I think I see: I see a man who is passionate about his craft. Not the metaphysical ideation side of things (well, probably that, too), but the act of production in and of itself. In one interview, we see Ed’s office-cum-workshop. Like me, Ed uses a Microsoft Kinect depth-sensing infra-red camera for motion capture. Like me, Ed (bizarrely) has a fidget spinner on his desk. His space is strewn with little volumes of poetry, fastidiously bookmarked. He is a bricoleur of the highest order, and though I am not that myself, I have no doubt that he relishes each and every moment of studio time; time in which he can transcend the agonizing indefatigability of our earthly obligations and engage instead in the atemporal frivolity of near-meditative computer-mediated praxis; a creative flow state in and because of which the pain of reality temporarily subsides, to be replaced with the inarticulable joie de vivre of a tragicomically niche pastime, rather than life in general.

So there you have it. Ed’s obsession with the act of creation (which I will decline to read as hubristic, in spite of their obvious life-likeness; he’s described his characters as “dead on arrival”) can be seen as perhaps in part the reason behind his tendency to pursue odd tangents in interview, and go completely off-piste. Ego Ed just wants to make stuff. When Super-Ego Ed is pressed for answers as to why his creations (Dave the character; Id Ed, or Ed’s Id) is so vulgar, Super-Ego Ed has no problems conjuring up, post-hoc, extremely clever-sounding explanations as to what the piece in question was meant to be exploring. I’m not suggesting that Ed goes into his artworks with absolutely no idea as to what kind of comment he hopes to make, but rather that much of this logic is put into words and applied ex-post facto, with a tentative lack of conviction that permits the artist to adjust his explanations of his own works on situation-by-situation basis, thereby affording himself a considered leeway to refigure his professional identity at will. Nobody will ever guess that Ego Ed actually just really likes dicking around with computer graphics! Nobody will ever guess that Id Ed is in fact really rather fond of the booze, and has a persistent—perhaps unhealthy—fixation on his ex! (Again: Like the rest of us.)

Where, though, is this hitherto unseen substrate of humour in Ed’s work that I promised you earlier? Well… If we assume that Id Ed is what’s represented by means of meticulous reconstruction in the works, and Ego Ed is the innocent soul who just wants to make art for art’s sake, but can’t complain about the fact that his creations are earning such hefty price-tags, and if Super-Ego Ed is the considered yet somehow chaotic Groucho Marx-like persona that takes care of business in interview and/or networking situations, then Ed Atkins (totality) may be making an elaborate in-joke at the relative (in)expense of disgustingly wealthy art collectors and unironic culture vultures alike, which means that Id Ed and Ego Ed are laughing all the way to the bank.


Cover photo from Aesthetica Magazine.

Dooley is a cognitivist and media theorist by training and affiliation. He's inexplicably excited about the latest, most expensive representational form, Virtual Reality. "Inexplicably" because he finds the majority of VR to have emerged so far—narrative, ludic, and artistic alike—to be so woefully under-informed and uninspiring that he's going to have to have to remedy the situation by making VR experiences himself. He enjoys surrealist existentialism whatever the medium.

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