Review: Charles Atlas – The Waning of Justice
Charles Atlas’s mesmerizing video installation, The Waning of Justice, is on view until December 11 at CCAD’s Contemporary Art Space. In this compelling -if perplexing- work, we find Atlas’s long-standing engagement with human performance combined with his recent explorations into the choreographic potential of numbers and graphics. It creates a powerful experience that is both sensory and cerebral.
For the majority of his 40 year career, Atlas has been best known for his collaborative endeavors with performers and choreographers, including the musical documentary, Turning, and perhaps most notably, the many films created with dance world luminary, Merce Cunningham. When discussing these pieces, he recalls, “We really were committed to human movement, and the human body, and what a body could do.” However, in the years following Cunningham’s death Atlas took a different approach. He removed the body from his works altogether, employing graphics and numbers instead. Austere and chilly, lacking the warmth of human presence, his “number pieces” like The Illusion of Democracy, nonetheless achieve a balletic dynamism as endless streams of white numbers tumble and swirl across darkened gallery walls.
The Waning of Justice, created for the Luhring Augustine gallery this spring, is a single piece in which we see Atlas bringing together these two distinct approaches. The human performance is brought to us in the smaller of the two galleries by videos of the magnificent New York drag queen, Lady Bunny. Projected larger-than-life on the rear wall of the gallery, resplendent in enormous wigs and glittering gowns, she gives a spirited performance and then, after a pause, returns to speak thoughtfully and passionately about an array of social issues, politics, the environment, her family. Although the audio component of her song is loud and clear, during her monologue the sound regularly cuts in and out, momentarily robbing her of her voice and silencing her opinions.
In the main gallery, Atlas employs the graphic elements of the numbers pieces but in a more organic way. Here, three of the towering walls are covered with an ever-changing series of richly-colored sunsets. Filmed in Florida while Atlas was on a residency, these lush meditations on the end of the day are in constant motion over an underlying grid. Over the top of these panoramas, enormous letters steadily come and go, cohering briefly into pairs of words that sometimes seem meaningful, sometimes random—GLITTER / UTOPIA, QUINOA / HOODOO, DESTINY / FOREST, MORNING /JUSTICE.
In the middle of the floor, near the center of the room is a large digital clock. Its numbers fly by as it relentlessly counts down the minutes until sunset. It is the mechanism driving the dance of words and graphics, at each minute mark the colors change and the images reset. This room has its own soundtrack, music which starts softly and begins to build as the clock ticks on. Near the end, a mournful bagpipe kicks in as the sun dips below the horizon. Then silence falls and the room goes dark.
As an aside, it’s definitely worth waiting around in that darkened gallery for the piece to start over again. There is an undeniable magic when the clock springs back to life, the walls come alive with numbers, and lines begin to draw the sunset scenes that slowly materialize behind them.
In his question and answer session with Johanna Fateman at the show’s opening, Atlas spoke about the apocalyptic connotations of the sunset footage, about wanting to do a portrait of Lady Bunny, and about the title, which had been in his head for some time. Although recognizing the political content of the work, Atlas doesn’t explicitly spell it out, leaving the job of interpretation largely up to you.
The Waning of Justice provides a powerful experience. You feel small in the midst of these lofty galleries, towering images, and often cacophonous soundtracks. You are engulfed by sights and sounds. It’s deeply sensory, yet at the same time you are mentally working to understand the patterns, the meanings, the messages behind the random words, the sinking sun, the silencing of Lady Bunny’s voice, the ticking clock and of course, the work’s title.
This is definitely a show you want to experience in person. The Waning of Justice, along with two other current exhibitions, Chimera 45 and Big Pharma, run until Friday, December 11 at the CCAD Contemporary Art Space.