Thursday, 20 November 2008


Charles Atlas, Tornado Warning (2008). Courtesy the artist and Vilma Gold, London.

Charles Atlas, Tornado Warning, Vilma Gold, 14 Nov-7 Dec 2008.

"Five channel video work installed through the gallery", promised the blurb for the new Charles Atlas show at Vilma Gold. Which was true, although it was the arrangement rather than the number which was key. One screen in the main space which grew beyond its frame as if conceptually keen to experience space beyond its borders; four crowded into the back room that overlapped and moved about as if parts of some shared brain.

Restlessness and stillness, singular and plural, are some of the immediate impressions of this show. Tornadoesque, indeed. Only it's not some essence at core but some basic geometry of lines and squares, swirls or grids of letters and numbers. This, at least, seems the message of the single screen Plato's Alley, which serves as preface. Whilst looking at it, a somewhat small and lonely projection in the gallery's main space, the other pieces can be heard but not seen.

So lines become a grid of white squares, then a grid of smaller squares, expanding beyond corners onto the side walls. Then a clearing appears in the grid, like a door, and the numbers 1-6 appear in succession. Then there is a horizontal letter-box kind of shape and those numbers 1-6 appear again, horizontally, all at the same time. A swirl of letters and numbers follows  before the space starts again. Blocks become lines, horizontal and vertical, that refract, alternately shimmer and define, deliberately rudimentary.

In some ways the piece seemed a minimalist essay on the concerns waiting in more complex fashion in the next room. Lines respond to the space, fitted to its walls and corners, making and stretching some hi-tech proscenium arch, but don't seem to be specific to it. Similarly, there is in the loops unfolding a certain exploring of the potentials of video, certain formal properties of shape and line. Yet this too doesn't seem to describe the core of what's going on. 

In the second room - entitled Institute for Turbulent Research - nothing is slow and measured, or viewable from a single point. There are immediate decisions to be made about where to look. Two facing images offer different kinds of tornado - one a black and white rorschach test of a dervish spiral; the other like a spinning DVD set loose within the Tornado of an effects programme,  oftentimes the tornado manifested in a literal or metaphorical roulette wheel.

Tornado Warning (2008). Courtesy the artist and Vilma Gold, London.

Across the room a fixed screen shows a variety of objects spinning slowly in space: a chair, a crate and a spade. A roving image moves from wall to floor to ceiling. The imagery moving between the screens mixes old black and white movies, abstract patterns, with images taken from television and the internet that present war, environmental disaster, basketball playing, or...

The specifics are a bit vague in my memory, you can't see all the images all of the time and, actually, I don't think it matters. The piece sets up its whole experience, and seems to be actively cultivating a kind of inspecific seeing, where individual details work less as individual images to be contemplated than as hints, glimpses in peripheral vision(s), contributing a note or tone to the overall impact of the four screens. 

It's all very not-contemplative. The floating objects are a point of stillness,  but their gravity defying rotations seem deliberately to present a crude, stupid, but not unpleasing, magic.  Nor is the effect one of struggling for orientation amongst a flood of imagery. For all its varying activity, Tornado Warning approximates an old fashioned reading experience, linear and measured.  If the whole is what is important then the whole ends up as a rather self-negating parody of itself, and involvement, and installations.

As I headed out the image on the first screen was slowly counting to six yet again. The precise tone of this piece is illusive and perhaps it hinges on how you perceive the relations between the two rooms. Is the first a kind of code generating the second, or some simplistic parody of a world view countered by the engagement of the second room? Are the two rooms as provocatively daft as each other? Should we return to the first screen as a measure of hope, reason, nightmare, or joke ? Or should we just read the press release which divides the two rooms into order and chaos, childhood and adulthood.

I'm clinging to that sense of cultivating a kind of inspecific seeing, although I don't know what that means either and as I write there's a spade and a plastic crate rotating in the air outside the window.  

Actually, having written  and posted this, I was thinking, well, really, what is a "self-negating parody of a video installation" when it's at home? I mean, what does it look like? How can one tell? How does it act? 

Then I was thinking: how does the "very not-contemplative" art work behave? Maybe it prefers to be capitalised, with acronym potential.  Actually, what I was thinking of there was the process of sustained looking at an object. I think Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons is the best example here because it is both very precise but the relationship to objects isn't descriptive in any conventional sense. 

Stein's writing also demonstrates that something obtains through that act of sustained looking. And I don't think that is the case here. I don't think that is the way this piece is looking. It's slippery. So how does one construct a relationship to it? How does it construct its meaning? 

And when an everyday object is rotating in mid-air does it have to be wondrous? Are there ways it can begin to defy both wondrousness and gravity but keep its sanity?