The Severed Head and Other Carry-On Luggage

June 6, 2017

Ed Atkins: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Ed Atkins: Modern Piano Music. These concepts are liquid, melancholia, text, and body/violence.

Considerations: Body/Violence

To be honest, this is making me a little uncomfortable, he says politely, as he peels off layer after layer of his face, removes his eyeballs, detaches his hands, and places his organs in airport security bins to the triumphant sounds of Ravel’s Bolero. This scene unfolds in the deserted airport terminal of Ed Atkins’s Safe Conduct (2016), as a blinking red light sounds a continuous, anxiety-producing alarm. What could be more uncomfortable than decapitating and dismembering oneself piece by piece and observing the pathetic and horrific outcome? In Atkins’s work, this is a non-issue. The battered and bruised protagonist is not human… he/it is the shell of a body that has achieved a convincing disguise through the trickery of CGI. Atkins likes to work with avatars (or “surrogates” as he calls them), because it allows him more freedom than working with a live actor. “I don’t have to violate anyone [1],” he says, as he creates these “models” already dead, captivated by their artifice [2].

What is it about Atkins’s work, then, that causes such a visceral reaction, such strong feelings of attraction and repulsion, and that also creates an emotional connection between the viewer and the surrogate? Perhaps in this work, it is the notion of familiarity: the tune to which one can whistle along without realizing it; the commonplace plastic airport security bins that ceaselessly roll down the conveyor belt, whisking away our laptops and cellphones, our money… our identity, our pride; or, in the case of Safe Conduct, intestines, weapons, blood, and pineapples. Like the surrogate, we are complacent to this intrinsically, if subtly, violent treatment that travellers are sometimes subjected to as we are told to remove our shoes, our belts, (our dignity), and even at times, to spread our legs and to wait. Atkins addresses the absurdity of what has become routine, upping the ante and the violence, as well as the surrogate’s reaction. We see the shaking, dirty, bloody hands and black fingernails, the purple face of the helpless, useless and beaten down ‘corpse,’ going through the motions, repeatedly, willingly, unthinkingly – his severed head, full of life-like qualities, perhaps the most poignant image of the lot.

The symbol of the severed head is recurrent throughout the history of art, and has been broached by many theorists. Atkins references the Surrealists, French philosopher Georges Bataille, and Bulgarian-French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva as inspiration in his work. In Severed Head: Capital Visions, Kristeva discusses representations of severed heads as bringing to mind our fear of death, and considers the head “as a symbol of the thinking living being [3].” To separate the head from the body, then, ultimately leads to the death of two levels of being: the physical and the mental/emotional. Atkins states that he uses the tool of the severed head to emphasize that something is really dead [4]. In this case, though, the severing of the head does not kill his protagonist… he/it is already dead — and always has been dead. This point is further confirmed as the full-bodied avatar watches his own singing, blinking severed head sailing down the conveyor belt. Atkins pulls the strings of his puppets via his laptop, leading them through the violence of life, perpetually, without ever having to live it – nor being able to escape it.

The concept of “safe conduct” refers to the immunity from harm when traveling through an area of conflict. Taking this into account, how do you understand the protagonist’s violent act of decorticating his own body in the context of airport security?

Consider the avatar’s unique position of seeming so human, but yet never truly alive or in control of its actions. How do you interpret the roles of the avatar and human responsibility in the age of Artificial Intelligence and CGI?

Amanda Beattie
DHC/ART Education


[1] BALLARD, Thea. (2014). “Newsmaker: Ed Atkins On His Serpentine Sackler Gallery Installation.” Modern Painters. Online. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1044455/newsmaker-ed-atkins-on-his-serpentine-sackler-gallery
[2] GAVIN, Francesca. (2014). “Ed Atkins on bodily fluids and death”. Dazed and Confused. Online. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/18084/1/ed-atkins
[3] KRISTEVA, Julia (2012). Severed Head: Capital Visions. Translated by Jody Gladding. New York: Columbia University Press.
[4] GAVIN, Francesca. (2014). “Ed Atkins on bodily fluids and death”. Dazed and Confused. Online. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/18084/1/ed-atkins


Image credit: Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct (video still), 2016. Three channel HD film with 5.1 surround sound. Courtesy of Ed Atkins and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.

#amanda beattie
#dhc/art education
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#movements