Critique | Kevin Atherton, ‘The Return’

Butler Gallery; 6 August – 2 October 2022

Kevin Atherton, Boxing Re-Match, 1972-2015, Film/Performance; image courtesy the artist and Butler Gallery. Kevin Atherton, Boxing Re-Match, 1972-2015, Film/Performance; image courtesy the artist and Butler Gallery.

At one point many years ago, during a particularly bizarre arts-funded junket to Sicily – in the midst of a heatwave – myself and another arts worker found ourselves watching hours of puppet videos while sweltering in a heavily curtained, puppet-maker’s bedroom. That is to say, re-encountering Sicilian-made puppets at Kevin Atherton’s ‘The Return’ at The Butler Gallery, 25 years later, felt far too soon. But while the two encounters had some things in common – puppets, a heatwave, film – this body of work that plays with linear narrative, reframed my flashback, while the cool grey space kept the worst of the heat at bay.

‘The Return’ features nine works – the majority being film combined with performance as well as some sculptural and photographic pieces. From the 1970s up to the present day, these works encompass the artist’s perpetual re-entry into the work. That is, he re-uses past works, revisiting and reframing them from future vantage points. In Boxing Re-Match, (1972-2015), a film of the older artist (energetic in yellow, silky shorts) is projected onto footage of his younger self (wearing orange shorts). Despite his obvious age, he trounces this upstart youth in two minutes. 

Signature Piece (2018), a 3D print in limestone, is a miniature, double self-portrait. One figure shows off a tattoo – his own signature on his inner forearm – to his identical double. Their age gap here is only minutes apart. The tattoo is real, as evidenced by the photograph of Atherton’s arm on a nearby wall. In Two Minds – Puppet/Person Version (1978-2013-2018) is a work re-framed twice. It shows the younger artist, projected on one wall, questioning a film of his older self, projected onto the facing wall. The viewer, caught between the two, swings from one to the other as if pulled by strings. Later they, the artists young and old, are replaced by puppet versions. 

Atherton’s use of himself in his work was not a conscious plan in the beginning; he used himself because it was the cheapest option. The evolution of Atherton’s revisitations was not planned either but grew from his exploration of what was, in the 1970s, a new media. The initial recording for In Two Minds was made for use in a performance on the same day but as time passed, pairing the recording with progressively older selves changed the work, expanding it to include enquiries not just on the artist and the self, but on aging and grief. 

The eponymous work, The Return (1972-2017), is situated in a small dark space at the heart of the show. On one wall, the artist as a young man, holding a board behind him, slowly turns to reveal, standing on the other side, his then girlfriend – later his wife – Vicki, who died in 2005. On the facing wall, the artist, 45 years older, again turns slowly, the board behind him revealing Vicki’s face. It takes a moment to realise it is a screenshot from the older work that he is holding, there, on the other side.

There is playfulness here too – a wit that underpins every work. The absurdity of fighting, talking to oneself, erasing an old work, showing off a tattoo to a tiny doppelganger – this is all lightly underlined by the artist’s constancy. And in the ‘Digital Gallery’, upstairs, an hour-long reel of works, there are gems including The Observers Book of Birds – a three-minute flicking through of an old bird book that, by dint of the camera’s attention, is curiously touching. In Tennis Ball, the artist catches and returns a tennis ball to his much younger self. Iron Horses (1987), a 20-minute film of a train journey between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, is here too. The conversation between the artist and friend opposite, and the carriage window, frames the passing landscape in which, at intervals of a mile, 12 black, cut-out iron horses are posed. The horses are apparently still there.

This formalism underlying works like Iron Horses is more obvious in his sculptural work, Signature Piece (2018) and Double Joy (1986 & 2021) and in his framed drawing and photographs downstairs. These works also contribute to the exhibition’s strong coherence so clearly centred around the time-based concept. Atherton’s honesty and lack of posturing forms a large part of the work’s weight too, all of which serves to counter the drawbacks of the space which seems cramped and lacking any intuitive flow. A proper survey of the work, including the ‘Digital Gallery’ upstairs, will take visitors the bones of two hours – well worth it for those ready to spend the time. 

Clare Scott is an artist, writer and researcher based in the south-east.