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Atlas still from Ex Romance video
Atlas Ex Romance film still

Charles Atlas, Ex-Romance, 1984/1987
16mm film transferred to video, sound

Video artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas’ back catalogue spans TV specials, semi-fictional documentaries and multi-channel installations, all connected by the power to blur performance with reality. Ominous, Glamorous, Momentous, Ridiculous, his new show at the ICA Milano – fully installed but closed to the public due to coronavirus, so available to view as a virtual tour – showcases some of his most famous works, including Hail The New Puritan and The Legend of Leigh Bowery. Technical and complex, his brand of time-based media doubles as a window onto the underground scenes he belonged to in the 80s and 90s, starring the close friends that made those radical networks famous.

Weaving movement, identity and subversive glamour, Atlas’ video portraits hinge on the creative possibilities of collaboration. From being filmmaker in residence for legendary American choreographer Merce Cunningham’s dance company (where he started in 1969 as an assistant stage manager and later established a new art form in media-dance) and exploring the outrageous universe of artist and designer Leigh Bowery, to documenting a dream-like day in the life of mercurial dancer Michael Clark while sending up Thatcher’s dysfunctional Britain, the singular personalities of his creative partners regularly dominate the work.

His most recent piece, I Am Beautiful, was created for the Milan exhibition and combines films of women shot on stage while touring with Antony and the Johnsons in 2006 with unused footage of Bowery lip-syncing to Aretha Franklin. Another example of Atlas’ skill for composing and curating that rings just as true when repurposing these previous pieces as it does when live mixing a performance that juggles moving image, musicians and dancers from his laptop.

Currently under lockdown in New York, the genius who brought us Michael Clark dancing to The Fall in a bumless leotard discusses his attraction to artists who work at the edges of society, and the secret to collaborating with characters that other people find impossible.

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