Death Mask II: The Scent 2010 is a High Definition video projection, just over eight minutes long, that presents an immersive sequence of interconnected images repeated and distorted through various lighting effects and digital techniques. A large spherical fruit floats downwards from the top of the frame, then looms in and out of focus. The vibrating lighting effects – transforming the fruit’s subdued tones to bright yellow and back again – and the juddering effect of the camera’s zoom are echoed by the riffs of the electric guitar soundtrack that accompanies the projection. A flame burns at the fruit’s summit, switching on and off to accompanying clicks, then later appears alone in the darkness, with a rainbow light spectrum multiplying and rotating like a flickering halo around it. A sequence of coloured filters throws the leathery skin of the fruit into relief, while a close-up shot of the back of a woman’s blond cropped head is framed to create a formal and visual equivalence. A spring-loaded calculator is released by a hand, its suggestive unfurling accompanied by the emotive yet synthetic soundtrack from the Italian horror film Cannibal Holocaust (1980) directed by Ruggero Deodato. Repeated several times throughout the work, this sequence becomes its comic signature motif or theme, accompanied by the artist’s off-camera mutterings and whistling in the background. The fruit appears, sliced in two, a viscous black substance oozing across its surface. Critic Isobel Harbison has noted: ‘As the bare form of each image reappears, surfaces crack and run, dissolving into one another; candle wax mutates to black ink poured onto the fruit’s white inner flesh. Here, digital alteration is culinary substance as much as technical tool.’ (Harbison 2011, p.108.)
Working primarily in High Definition video, Atkins uses widely available prosumer digital technology to amplify and exaggerate the mechanics of filmmaking. Image edits are accompanied by specific sounds while the artist’s breathing or whistling, and the clicks and switches of the editing equipment are integrated into his work, giving a presence to both the equipment and the figure behind the camera. Despite his use of non-narrative structures and seemingly incongruous sequences of images, Atkins fluently exploits cinematic devices, pairing image and sound to direct the audience’s response and exploit the visceral potential of his material.
Atkins enhances and draws out the anthropomorphic aspects of the objects in his films. His desire to conjure the living from the inanimate, to extrude material qualities from the immaterial, which then translate as sensation in the audience, extends beyond the moving image into writing and drawing, and his videos are often presented as part of an installation that brings together the range of his practice. Like his films, Atkins’s writings take the form of screenplays that shrug off narrative development in favour of vivid and dense descriptive passages, ‘escaping the fantasy of literature and entering material existence’ (Ed Atkins in an email exchange with Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas, 5 May 2011). The screen play Death Mask II offers a ‘partial exegesis’ (ibid.) for some of the symbolism within the film, focusing on descriptions of the durian fruit, infamous for its disgusting and indescribable smell reminiscent of a rotting corpse. The corpse, as articulated through French theorist Maurice Blanchot’s (1907–2003) descriptions of cadavers as representations of living beings, is a recurrent theme in Atkins’s films, and one in which he finds affinities with the increasingly ‘realistic’ imagery produced by high definition digital technology. He has commented: ‘with a sleight of hand, representation replaces the “original”; the work is a cadaver which necessitates the death of the original. It’s murderous, potentially.’ (Quoted in Whitby 2011, n.p.)
New Contemporaries 2010, exhibition catalogue, New Contemporaries, London 2011.
Isobel Harbison, ‘Focus: Ed Atkins’, Frieze, no.139, May 2011, p.108.
Richard Whitby, ‘Ed Atkins: Interview with Richard Whitby’, MAP, Summer 2011.