I contain multitudes

Jon Hillier
Sep 20, 2014 4:23PM

Hyde Park is famous for cruising, just don't always expect to find glory holes in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery.

The cock-height holes, cut with precision through the surfaces of Ed Atkins' solo show, may have a more sanctified air than the average glory hole, but they're functionally the same. They're frames for worshiping the body as well as channels for antisocial connection; themes Atkins, whose work often tangles the nature of body and identity, has been drawn to before.

In full memento mori mode, hyperventilating text, prints and Gustonesque doodles on upright panels begin to describe the components of a broken male body; the block of a torso here, limbs, a cock and bloody hammer-horror head there. It's a discomforting but necessary pretext for Atkins' show: our bodies are vulnerable.

A loud male voice lures the viewer deeper into the dimly lit gallery where 'Ribbons' (2014), an impressive series of super-slick CGI animations, introduces us to Dave. Skinheaded and fit, he might have been a bully in childhood, had he had one, but Dave is an avatar. 

Dave can't seem to focus or settle, he spouts a winding ego-driven monologue that never quite makes sense and glares nakedly and angrily at the viewer. He chain smokes, binge drinks and inks his pixel-pored skin with crass tattoos ("ASS HOLE", "TROLL", "CUNT"). 

Is his dysfunctional behaviour so surprising? Avatars, the digital vessels we use to represent or idealise the self, behave strangely. The very idea of the self is a convenient fiction, so any attempt to represent or replicate the whole reality of us is likely to fall short, the code is corrupt from the outset. Atkins' show opened with the fleshy, physical fragments of a body, it continues by exposing the identities that sat within it.

As it turns out, Dave feels familiar. We all have avatars: the you on Facebook is probably (hopefully) very different to the you on Xtube or LinkedIn and all of them behave extremely differently to you in 'real' life. Dave is a Troll, an online archetype defined by a desire to prompt an emotional response in others. He's an example of how acting virtually, without restraints on our physical body, can push us to extremes that would be unacceptable in 'real' life. 

Atkins' work articulates the danger of our enmeshed sense of the real and the virtual, as do the mediums he works in; his films have glitches, they break down (for which Dave apologises) and stock imagery, lazy TV tropes and chart songs slip into his otherwise defiantly idiosyncratic work.

Drawing light on limits and the incongruities of the virtual is one important way to distinguish them from the real. Somehow, Dave seems to know that too. His irresponsible behaviours are all thoroughly somatic and test the inconsistencies of his un-real body. It's in this realisation that the show takes a surprisingly moving turn. New tattoos appear on him ("LOVE PLEASE"), and Dave, who we've written off as a Troll, begins to plead for an intimacy impossibly at odds with his non-being.

He peers through a glory hole but spies no one. We feel a love of flesh and reality more fiercely, because Dave cannot. 

Jon Hillier
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019