I’ve Got A Future: Charles Atlas’s “the past is here, the futures are coming”

Charles Atlas, The Years, 2018 (photo by author)

What does art accomplish? It’s not such an easy question. Will work made make an impact on a political scale in the present and in the future, will it even resonate with forthcoming generations? Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley tangled with these queries’ fatalistic conclusions in his poem “Ozymandias,” depicting the grand works of a great king which were lost to the sands of time:

“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But you don’t have to be a king–or a drug kingpin since I first discovered this poem through a dramatic reading by Bryan Cranston in conjunction with an episode of the same name on Breaking Bad–to relate, foreseeing your work’s inevitable fade from relevancy in a not-too-distant future.

Charles Atlas, 2003, 2018 (Installation photo: Jason Mandella; Courtesy the artist and The Kitchen, New York)

This questioning of the continued legacy of art can be seen in Charles Atlas’s current exhibition the past is here, the futures are coming at The Kitchen. Rather than sands covering up statues, though, Charles Atlas’s show features flickering images and records of cinematic memories, as Atlas sifts through his archive. Organized by Katy Dammers and Tim Griffin, the exhibition features two new video installations, as well as a selection of Atlas’s earlier collaborations with choreographers such as Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark on smaller screens outside the main exhibition space.

Granted, an interest in legacy isn’t an unusual–many artists begin to contemplate their own continued significance later in their career. For some, this leads to increased and sometimes, desperate interest in belonging to the institution, while for others, they, instead, decide to take a more philosophical route, asking open-ended questions about the inescapable passing of time and the placement of their work within that. Atlas is undoubtedly in the latter crew. And thank god.

As the title indicates, the exhibition presents a play with temporality, blurring the ephemeral boundaries between past, present and future by drawing Atlas’s previous works out of the back catalogue. Even the installation itself seems to dissolve these divisions. If viewers can tear themselves away from Michael Clark and Leigh Bowery (I barely could), they’ll find themselves in an incredibly dark main exhibition space, standing between two monumental video installations 2003 and The Years. While both use old footage, they are technically new. With this chronological confusion, the show is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton,” which was read by Lana Del Rey on her album Honeymoon:

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable…”

A similar sense of unredeemability transverses the exhibition. Now, this doesn’t come as too much of a surprise since Atlas has been toying with apocalyptic visions in recent years, in particular in his last show The Waning of Justice at Luhring Augustine. With filmed sunsets and clocks ticking down like a Doomsday Clock, along with phrases from our contemporary culture like “asshat,” Atlas’s 2015 show eerily foretold an end to an era we naively didn’t even know was at risk, unknowingly heralding a new age of anxiety under Trump. That show culminated in a video performance by Lady Bunny, reflecting as Atlas told me at the time for an interview with VICE, “the world should end and then there should be a disco song.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. In the past is here, the futures are coming, Atlas doesn’t forsake this sense of foreboding and only deepens his critique by bringing the significance of art, namely his art, into question.

Detail of Scott Ewalt in Charles Atlas, 2003, 2018 (photo by author)

With multiple images playing out on one giant video screen, flanked by two smaller TVs, 2003 takes viewers back to the era of the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Juxtaposing a patchwork of multiple, vibrantly colored video feeds, Atlas combines news footage from 2003 with video portraits of artists, dancers, writers, DJs and other Downtown denizens, originally made at Participant Inc. during the same year for a project entitled Instant Fame!. Like more active Warhol screen tests, these portraits range from burlesque icons Dirty Martini and Julie Atlas Muz performing to DJ and artist Scott Ewalt boogieing in futuristic sunglasses. At the time, these portraits were shot in Participant Inc’s basement and projected in real time in the nonprofit’s gallery space.

Here, though, Atlas puts the avant-garde in conversation with what was happening outside of the arts community in Lower Manhattan through a smattering of clips that makes the viewer feel like they might have a seizure. It also makes for some interesting juxtapositions. For example, poet Eileen Myles dedicates a poem to her girlfriend’s pussy–a reading that is barely discernible in conjunction with the other sounds echoing through the space, while Colin Powell reads a statement on the ongoing war efforts in Iraq. At first, this interwoven mess of moving images seems like a fun romp, a Who’s Who of the underground. And yet, there is also an ominous quality–creativity in communication or really, lack of communication with war.

Overall, with 2003, Atlas forges a narrative of a vibrant arts community that occurs while the world outside is seemingly crumbling. As he told Garage Magazine, “It was remarkable to me to think that we were doing this in a gallery in downtown New York and we were also fighting a war in Iraq…That’s how all our wars have been ever since: we don’t really know about them, they’re not in the front pages.” Even though the footage dates from 15 years previous, it still reverberates with the same Downtown art scene today. Most of these creators continue to plug on as Trump dismantles as much of our democracy as he possibly can. And yet, the arts continue–people keep on writing poems to their girlfriends’ pussies, stripping, making art, dancing, etc.

Is this bad? Not necessarily–Atlas doesn’t seem to be making a damning critique, only laying out this undeniable disconnect between culture and the world outside of the art bubble. On the one hand, this division can seem like cringe-worthy cognitive dissonance (Are people really partying while others are at war?). But, it’s also a welcome relief. There is something to be said for the importance and even, activism of escapism.

Charles Atlas, The Years, 2018 (Installation photo: Jason Mandella; Courtesy of the artist and The Kitchen, New York)

If 2003 asks about the role of art in the present moment, The Years looks into the future. Immediately facing 2003, a stack of TVs project, as is described in the press release, “a video graveyard.” Flashing on the numerous screens, The Years broadcasts a proverbial retrospective of Atlas’s greatest hits. I spotted a young John Kelly in one of my favorite Atlas films Son of Sam and Delilah, as well as the startling countenance of Leigh Bowery, along with countless other examples of Atlas’s past work. With little to no sound (though who could tell with the cacophony of 2003), The Years appears like a memorial, one that seems to be taking place in front of a lineup of apathetic teens.

On top of the stack of televisions sits a screen featuring a grouping of teens that represent a ghostly indeterminate future. Staring outward, these teens immediately brought to mind the activists from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This similarity isn’t a mistake as Atlas told Garage: ““I was basically contemplating my own death. I was wondering if the work I had made would be of any interest or use to people in the future—[so] those figures in the back are ghosts of the future. They’re a certain age for two reasons: they’ll be alive when I die, and, well, I’m a child of the 60s. I’ve been waiting…for a protest generation. They’re possibly it, I hope.”

While The Years could be interpreted as an artist obsessed with his continued legacy, it also seems like a willful submission to the passing of time. In The Years, the figures’ reactions remain enigmatic. It’s almost impossible to tell if Atlas’s legacy is of any use to these haunting reminders of the future. Like Ozymandias, will all these transgressive films and collaborations with subversive artists be lost or languish in obscurity? Or will the kids find some kind of radical impulse within them? It’s hard, if not impossible, to say. Of course, a lot of young people today (those kids today! *shakes fist*) seem interested in engaging with a lineage of queer art-making practices, but there are also those like the sociopathic college Republicans profiled recently in Buzzfeed who are more than excited to erase or ignore it.

And at the end of the day, what is an artist to do? Do you give in to nihilism? Atlas doesn’t seem to reach any definitive conclusions. Despite the potential for obscurity in the future, it doesn’t mean an artist stops. Instead, you just settle in, watch Leigh Bowery strut down the street as Miss Peanut, wait and see.

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