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Ed Atkins. Corpsing, 2017
"Hisser", 2015Courtesy of Ed Atkins

Ed Atkins on his hyper-real and harrowing new films

The ‘model’ that the artist has been building over the past four years returns. This time more battered and bruised than before for a sinister show that, in his own words, spirals into lunacy

Ed Atkins is one of the most unsettling artists of our time, as well as one of the most exciting – legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist will be the first agree. Infamous across the art world for his CGI, hyper-realistic format films, the unique character (whom he calls a ‘model’) that he has generated has been traversing and manipulating spaces in limbo for the last four years through various stages of anxiety. Playing out a contemporary model of the Chinese legend of the Hungry Ghost – a mythological spirit who is driven by intense emotional and animalistic needs; forever evading solace, wandering through the waking world emancipated by its own addictions.

In Oxford-born Atkins’ latest video parables, “Hisser” and “Safe Conduct”, the cult avatar has gone into a more direct action mode against its faux-humanity. Hosted at Frankfurt’s MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt/Main, a certain juxtaposed hysteria swells over the two spaces dedicated to the show, titled Corpsing. Think beaten submissive meets Terminator with a fondness for de-bodyification. Is this a strategy of cultural and physical insurrection? Or are they just “Corpsing” – playing dead while their funerals are streamed out over the wide screens and surround sound for our entertainment?

Corpsing (opening 3 February) sees Atkins use the seduction of the violent unrest of the soul bound to a physical avatar, enabling him to map out our everyday digital and lived loneliness through fictive realism and harrowing narratives. With just enough madness to keep us enraptured within our own hell. We caught up with him ahead of its opening.

When you say "Corpsing", do you mean as an action or gesture?

Ed Atkins: It’s actually totally attached to an idea around that pseudo-theatrical term, like “cracking up”. While also engaging with the other etymological roots – the corpse, still breathing. The kind of heresy involved in the living dead. The surrogate, the veracity of the CGI pushing hard at realistic and failing hard to push into real. Corpsing as method – which might be close to an idea of abjection. A body – or the corporeal, or material – interrupting ideological, disinterested speculation. Like farting or burping or dropping character. Something that breaks the consensus of decorum or social order or whatever. “Corpsing”. It’s also a pretty neat description of my methods or their effect: like constantly interrupting itself. It’s kind a performance of bathos, really.

How is this presented in the museum?

Ed Atkins: It’s pretty tight, there are only two works in the show: “Hisser” and “Safe Conduct” – “Hisser”, occupying the entire ground floor, through five or six different iterations, each more emphatically similar than the last. “Safe Conduct” is upstairs, spiralling into lunacy. The two feature the same protagonist, or at least the same model – a figure – I’ve used before, only now he’s way more bruised, battered. Tired. He seldom speaks any more. Nothing to say save apologies – not much surrogacy left to perform save self-harm or submission.

Your living corpse takes on a rather grotesque irruption during “Safe Conduct”. Literally peeling his face off in a loop motion and emptying his organs into security trays. It has a certain mundane everyday quality of to it… but he is literally de-bodying himself, right?

Ed Atkins: It is, I think, slapstick. Hilarious flatulent evisceration while humming. Both demonstrative of the figure’s cartoon plasticity, and therefore his fungible surrogacy, and a deeper figured kind of capitulation given without remark, without the trauma that it should signify. It’s obviously a ludicrous caricature of the kind of denuding that one must perform in order to be afforded transit, safe conduct – so it’s kind of satirical. And in the way in which the figurative is made literal for the purposes of making it visible, that’s pretty much something that caricature, cartoons, can do. And CGI’s particular capacity to be a terribly realistic cartoon means their capacity to occupy both a visceral realism – and perhaps conjure some of the more sincerely felt and salient benefits of abjecting – and the impossible plasticity of a cartoon. Hope that makes some sense...

Your films often feel like you're asking the viewer to maneuver through truth and fiction – ebbing narratives transport us through personal mind games and locations. Is this from your lived experience?

Ed Atkins: Everything is filtered through me, of course – no other option. I would also tend towards a degree of caution around any uncritical appropriation. As in, the figures are sort of me... the moves are sort of mine. Though I don’t think there’s really any narratives in there. At least nothing longer than some aphoristic vignette. And I’m certainly not trying to play any mind games. And the locations are pretty much always a non-space of virtual limbo. At least, for the last four years or so.

“I’m certainly not trying to play any mind games” – Ed Atkins

Four years is a long time, as far as pouring yourself into a character

Ed Atkins: It’s not really a character but a model. It’s not got a back-story or a future or a present or anything. It’s more structure and reference, like a puppet or a device or something. A cypher, maybe? It’s a machine, I suppose, for channeling particular feelings and ideas. Maybe that’s a character, but I don’t think of it/him/the thing as such.

Okay, but one doesn’t need to step too far in the UK to see examples of some of your scenarios being replayed or reenacted in real life. “Ribbons” (2014) is a good example, the cypher could be any number of punters propping up a whiskey glass in a pub. Your work seems to create a space for the viewer to sit within, reminisce within.

Ed Atkins: I think the work’s mode of address – overly familiar, dripping with pathos – insinuates. It sort of obsequiously demands your attention that you stay with it. Yes to sitting within it, or standing. Your gorgeous eyes is a pretty trite word nowadays, but it’s something. I think it’s exciting to look for in a longer, more esoteric mode. Like, both immersion in tepid bath water – and like an immersive distraction, in your eyes or a book. Never virtual reality.

The condition of being stuck between two spaces, IRL and URL, almost in a state of limbo, do we accept that they are both as real as each other?

Ed Atkins: “Real” is always already caveated or footnoted, contingent – so to compare realities or set them against one another and to ask which is more real or whatever is a sort of pointless endeavor, no?

True, but are you into video games? This limbo often is reminiscent of their aesthetics. Your films could be likened to watching a hacked game, with its photo-realistic imagery, slipping in and out of a surreal and stilted dialogue.

Ed Atkins: I’m really more and more into video games. Less playing them than observing them, watching playthroughs, reading through the culture, etc. I try not to play them so much as they fill me up in such a dangerous way – they really do, it's the best and worst, things that make me feel replete. There are loads of video game-inflected forms to the videos, totally. Forms that have already been swallowed back up by blockbuster cinema and trailers and all that – which is sort of where they came from anyways. The attention video games induct, the solace I find they can provide, the ways in which they genuinely empty me out… I would love to talk about video games in terrific detail.

I also think, with computer games and your videos, it’s the moments in-between, the undocumented, unplayed parts that really draw you in as a viewer or player. Building up a situation from a series of citations, from previous scenes or plays or watches. H.P. Lovecraft is one author who always comes to mind when I see your work, not for any literal horror, but for the skill of mapping citations rather than producing excess material.

Ed Atkins: The continuity isn’t really deliberate – though undeniable. I’m still parsing the same things, really. The Lovecraftian thing is interesting. Like a subterranean thing that connects and disjoints similarly. I suppose straightforwardly it’s a matter of me thinking and moving between things all the time, and when a work appears, it's more often than not simply an arresting of the thinking at that point. Weird fiction is certainly something I’ve been into in the past. Not horror, really, but existential dread – things that lurk, both psychically and in the neighbouring apartment. Michaux is more like it.