It feels inaccurate somehow to call a polymath, even though she has established herself fairly equally as a sculptor, poet and electronic musician. Her several disciplines feel less like different worlds that she enters and more like parts of a continuous whole, the working-out of a single rhizomic idea. I’m interested in how polymaths think: They are less beholden to the expectations of any single art form, and can think laterally and even pack up and walk out of the frame if need be.
I notice that Atkinson’s music has the quality of her art, and, vice versa, a generative dreaminess both domestic and oceanic. Her art is generally large-scale, atmospheric and somewhat unsettling while using familiar referents and materials. She works a lot with colorful fabric and with arrangements of household objects (vases, books, old televisions, crystals, fruit) on gallery floors. There’s a playful quality to it that is counterbalanced with a sense of restraint and focus. In artist statements, she seeks unconventional analogies that make a kind of intuitive sense, often conceptually linking the body to her sculptural and sonic materials. One documented piece on her website is described as “a feminist hymn composed as a pyramidal structure, referring in the same time to the A-frame houses, the yoga position of the triangle, the first letter of the roman alphabet and the feminine sex.” Her music has a similar quality of ghostly serendipity, of something deep within the subconscious suddenly being brought to the surface. Even by the standards of ambient music, Atkinson’s work is unusually enveloping, almost claustrophobic. Her 2018 album “The Flower And The Vessel” is a lovely assemblage of Rhodes, resonant metal sounds, indeterminately placed field recordings and Atkinson’s own voice, often whispering or quietly murmuring fragments of text — she has said she uses whispering in her music because “whispering is a way to get inside your ear.”
She is, to a lesser extent, a writer whose work with language lives in a similarly beguiling space. A friend recently got a copy of her 2014 book “Improvising Sculpture As Delayed Fictions,” which I assumed to be a theory-heavy international-art-English book about her sculpture but turned out to be something enticing, decidedly literary and difficult to compare to anything.
The first thing you might notice about this book is how self-contained of an object it is. The unadorned, aggressively green cover gives almost no information about the book, and there is no author bio or explanation of purpose to be found anywhere. Even the opening few pages lack the usual copyright and publisher information (which is at the end), instead immediately immersing the reader in its strange textual world.
The book could be called poetry by default, but it varies so much that any genre designation could be partially correct but would be leaving something crucial out. There are moments where the text, which is splayed all over the page in a semi-Concrete fashion, resembles a collage-like collection of appropriated texts. One page simply has nouns scattered all over the page: “The Book / The Painting / The Concept / The Secret Desire / The Freedom.” There are also more cohesive segments that describe a scene or a character, or tell self-contained, surreal fables: A rich, spoiled girl is “wrecking her twenties in a desperate dance,” a piece of scribbled-on paper is turned into a readymade and displayed in the apartment of a wealthy woman, whose daughter unwittingly brings home the boy who scribbles on it years later. Characters occasionally recur, occasional development seems to begin happening before it’s cut off abruptly like a closed browser window. The most consistently recurring mode in “Improvising Sculpture” is Atkinson’s whimsical narration of the thoughts objects might have, interspersed with often nonspecific dialogue between humans.
More frequently, though, the text of the book takes on an amorphous character, like something overheard, fragments from the middle of something. We are not let in on the joke here, but everything is halfway recognizable. “A painting of a tree. / How can one be a tree… / Can you feel the tree? / How can a painting be. How can such a thing be? I don’t understand the material process of art. How something from one’s mind can be transferred to paint and then to an idea? Do you believe in ghosts?” The language comes close to theorizing or describing and then dissolves into refusal. Words are occasionally in different typefaces seemingly without explanation, the arrangement of words on the page is either in bracing blocks of continuous language or in pointillistic fragments. All this is also interspersed with black-and-white photographs of Atkinson’s art, and it’s tempting to think that this work simply resembles that awkward younger brother of literature and criticism, the Art Book, a kind of writing peripheral to both art and literature. But because these black-and-white photographs are so unrelated to the body text, and because it’s too hard to tell what one is looking at most of the time, they begin to resemble visual analogues to the beguiling work. There’s an analogy to be made between the oddly indeterminate text and the images that are shorn of their usual mechanism for conveying something, especially considering that Atkinson’s art is so reliant on the nuances of color and texture.
To that end, the language Atkinson uses isn’t exactly poetic, not quite beautiful or even really very stylish. Her sentences are short, declarative, signage-like. She frequently sounds like she is speaking only because she is fed up. At one point in the text she apologizes for her many typos by saying she isn’t a native speaker, but these mistakes feel deliberate to me. Her incorrect grammar gives the language of “Improvising Sculpture” a dreamlike quality. “First comes the dreams and later the words.” “She is in her early thirties, feels younger than what? Older than some other things, too.” She intersperses the text frequently with imperatively gentle statements: “lay down,” “roll roll roll for me,” “please.” There’s a tense balance, familiar to me from her music, between hard, impenetrable texture and affectionate sensuality, and especially in her more descriptive moments. “It’s June all of a sudden, it’s warm and / and spring feels from here like a shy little sister in the woods… It’s hard to concentrate because she is also listening to William’s conversation with Paul and Maria, low level words melting in the saturated music.” Moments like this remind me of other writers pushing against the narrative necessities of prose — William Carlos Williams, Olga Tokarczuk, Jenny Offill, Mary Ruefle.
Her interest in writing these sections seems to be similar to some of those writers, in that her aim is essentially to document the texture of her life, the patterns of thought an artist as brilliant and active as Atkinson goes through in juxtaposition with life. “Improvising Sculpture” feels like a dreamy cousin to fiction, almost. What emerges after reading the book is a feeling of being placed inside of an experience, being placed inside of a life.