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"Charles Atlas: Scary, Scary, Community Fun, Death" opens at Migros Museum fr Gegenwartskunst
Charles Atlas, The Years, 2018, 6-Kanal-Videoinstallation, Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Photo: Lorenzo Pusterla.

ZURICH.- The American artist Charles Atlas (b. St. Louis, Missouri, 1949) has been a leading figure in the domain of film and video art for almost fifty years, creating complex video installations and seminal films documenting dance and performance art. Atlas rose to renown with collaborative projects involving choreographers like Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) and Michael Clark (b. 1962) as well as the fashion designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery (1961–1994). His network of creative collaborators and associates largely coincides with his circle of friends: many of his works from the 1980s and 1990s are portraits of fellow protagonists of the New York underground scene and the contemporary milieu, employing a sub- and pop-cultural idiom to scrutinize aspects of biopower and the politics of bodies and identity. To this day, younger generations of filmmakers regard Atlas’s visual language as a key reference; a prominent example is his cinematography in the fictionalized documentary Hail the New Puritan (1986), in which the camera becomes the subject’s active counterpart. One defining feature of Atlas’s work is his ongoing investigation of the expressive potentials of time-based media. He started experimenting with the defamiliarizing impact of techniques such as chroma key compositing back in the late 1970s. His more recent video installations, which are often highly technically complex, are abstract and playful explorations of an iconography of geometric series or numerical sequences, examining questions of the segmentation and structuring of the visual space as well as contemporary issues in the politics of representation. The Migros Museum fr Gegenwartskunst mounts the artist’s first institutional solo exhibition in Switzerland, bringing together works from the past two decades, including one piece specifically created for the occasion.

Atlas’s work draws creative inspiration not only from his interactions with his associates but, more generally, from everything he experiences. Steeped in popular culture—the influence of Hollywood and television, in particular, is palpable throughout—his works are like time capsules, condensed recollections of moments in the artist’s life. This focus on contemporary realities defines his oeuvre on the thematic as well as technical levels. Instant Fame! (2003/06) revisits the filmic portraits he created in the 1980s and 1990s. Friends, acquaintances, and random visitors to the galleries in London and New York were invited to express themselves before and for the camera. Using a live video mixer, Atlas edited the footage for presentation on the spot. Gesturing back to his early work, the omitted scenes broach the question of identity, which emerges in the composition as an oscillation between self-presentation and the perceptions of others. A playful aspect is pivotal: the sheer pleasure of staging the self and breaking with social conventions. In Instant Fame!, Atlas first left the decision of what would happen before the camera to chance.

Randomness as the relinquishing of control are thematic in Institute for Turbulence Research (2008). Atlas created the work for his solo show Tornado Warning that refers to his memories of tornado warnings in the Midwest, where he grew up, and the sense of precariousness they prompted in him. The artist for once breaks up the tightly structured visual space that usually is characteristic of his work: oblique projections of sometimes hologram-like rotating pictorial elements on walls and translucent screens coalesce into a disturbing whirl of visual impressions accompanied by somber music. This oppressive chaos contrasts with the sense of order in Plato’s Alley (2008). Black-and-white geometric shapes slowly fan out across the screen before merging again, to be supplanted by series of digits, a numerical system that promises structure and control, though it is unclear whether that promise will be kept. The first work by Atlas that deliberately eschews all human and interpersonal themes, the silent Plato’s Alley is the complementary counterpart to Institute for Turbulence Research.

The site-specific all-round installation Glacier (2013) recreates the immersive effect of the flood of images that surround us in daily life. Atlas invites the viewer to lose himself or herself among video sequences of crowds on sidewalks, nature footage, and scenes of industrial production. The imagery blends seamlessly into a visually harmonious overall experience whose purport remains vague; the interchangeability of the video material reflects the sources from which it is drawn.

Atlas worked exclusively with found footage, primarily from the archives of the information services and media company Bloomberg, which commissioned the work. As a purveyor of digital data, Bloomberg commands an enormous stock of generic imagery that is used in a wide variety of contexts. In our information culture, still images and videos are no more than aesthetic placeholders to be managed and traded, the stuff of a profitable business. This practice reveals the ostensibly indexical nature of the visuals to be an illusion.

The exhibition is curated by Raphael Gygax. An accompanying monograph will be published by JRP|Ringier in the second half of 2018.

Charles Atlas lives and works in New York City. Over the decades, his work has been presented in numerous exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad, including, most recently, at the Museum of Modern Art (2017); the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2017); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2016); and the Tate Modern, London (2013). His contribution to the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 was honored with a Special Mention Award.

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