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Artist Charles Atlas Examines “The Illusion of Democracy”

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents a mindblowing installation by American artist Charles Atlas.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork: Inbox: Charles Atlas, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Groundbreaking filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas (American, b.1949) has established himself at the forefront of the avant-garde over the past 40 years by collaborating with luminaries across the disciplines of visual art, dance, music, theater, and television.

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He arrived in New York via St. Louis, MI, in 1970 at the age of 20, with dreams of becoming a filmmaker working during a period that gave birth to some of the cinema’s greatest revolutionaries. He got a job working with the legendary Merce Cunningham Dance Company, first as assistant stage manager and then becoming a lighting designer.

Charles Atlas. 143652. 2012. Video (color, silent). 12 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Catherine Badomi Heckett. © 2017 Charles Atlas; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Installation view, Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy, Luhring Augustine Bushwick, New York 2012.

Charles Atlas. 143652. 2012. Video (color, silent). 12 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Catherine Badomi Heckett. © 2017 Charles Atlas; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York. Installation view, Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy, Luhring Augustine Bushwick, New York 2012.

By 1974, he was the company’s filmmaker-in-residence, acquiring a Super 8 movie camera and setting out to create unedited filmic works. Soon Atlas and Cunningham began to create “media-dance,” a partnership between the camera and the performer where they move together for a series of dance performances designed specifically for film—absorbing many of the lessons that Marcel Duchamp introduced earlier in the century.

In 1983, Atlas left the company to do his own work, embracing the ease of the video camera, which fused the possibilities of film with the techniques and distribution possibilities of television. Atlas began collaborating with the likes of Andy Warhol, Marina Abramović, Nam June Paik, and Michael Clark, among other artists, dancers, musicians, and poets to explore the possibilities of the interplay between the moving camera and more traditional forms of art.

On June 3, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, will open Inbox: Charles Atlas: The Illusion of Democracy, an installation on view through July 30, 2017. Here, Atlas abandons the human body to examine the prevalence of numerical figures in our lives, animating a constantly expanding and contracting universe based on six digits (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6—like the faces of a die).

Here, Atlas has created intricately choreographed video installations that remind us of the presence of numbered sequences directing our lives, their ever invisible existence underscoring every bit of coding that occurs in the invisible netherworld of the Internet. By creating a visibility to the unseen world, Atlas underscores our blind dependence on the figures and formulas that inform and influence our lives. To add fuel to the fire, his sequences are absolutely mesmerizing, lulling us into a state of sheer bliss with synchronized movements that are the perfect metaphor for the digital realm.

The Illusion of Democracy is a trilogy of works made between 2008 and 2012, featuring three distinct pieces that visually speak to the essence of chaos and order in twenty-first century life. In Plato’s Alley (2008), pulsing vertical and horizontal white lines take shape as a grid populated by the ensemble, and in Painting by Numbers (2011), a sea of digits swells and subsides over six acts that culminate in a climactic finale. In 143652 (2012), bars of color slowly yet relentlessly scan back and forth, at once erasing and transforming each figure.

Atlas also collaborated on the design of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, currently on view in the fourth-floor Collection Galleries—reminding us, much like the numbers, his presence is felt in more places that we may immediately recognize.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.