Ed Atkins

Ed Atkins puts the horror in horror vacui. Working primarily in video and text although his installations can include works on paper that function as treatments or prologues-the 30-year-old Oxford-born artist makes compositions saturated with sensual information that paradoxically expresses the impossibility of representing the complexity of flesh. Death Mask I and II (2010), an 80-page spiral-bound screenplay, which was displayed in a video installation at a 2011 solo show at London’s Cabinet Gallery, ends with stage directions that instruct readers to imagine a snap to red as the hauntingly saccharine theme song to the 1980 Italian grindhouse film Cannibal Holocaust plays. The screenplay Death Mask I fantastically stars French Revolution-era wax sculptor Marie Tussaud as both a torturer and a preserver of life, and includes a cameo by Michael Jackson; the subject of the Death Mask II text is 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Death Mask II: The Scent, an eight-minute video from 2010, is typical of Atkins’s work in that it plays on commercial filmmaking conventions. With incredible stillness, the camera hovers behind the head of an unseen person in flickering light and a candle in a dark chamber. This same attention is paid to various fruit, which go in and out of focus as a symphonic fermata plays, giving the impression of an experience summoning, or already over. “Actors, rendered in hd, are closer to their ‘real’ selves than ever,” says Atkins, who uses high-definition video to render the thrilling thinness of skin. “Pores gape, hairs retard, wrinkles pucker-or at the other end, makeup cakes, costumes cheapen, weapons become toys.”

Us Dead Talk Love (2012), the centerpiece of the artist’s solo show this past fall at Chisenhale Gallery, is a 37-minute two-channel video in which Atkins’s voice-over recalls finding an eyelash under his foreskin, proposing its metaphorical import as either a fossil, an opening made with a blade, a protein, or a banality. Spoken by a bald 3-D head covered in flat skin and mapped with Atkins’s own screen-captured features, the text spins into a meditation on authenticity, self-representation, and the possibility for love. “Perhaps the horror vacui might relate to intimacy,” says Atkins, “to being incredibly close. That, and some fresh, quantum phobia concerning the subatomic and the thick nonspace of antimatter.”