Left: Ceramic mine, Atlanta series, 1998
From the catalogue Mining in Technicolor

During the '80s, Atkinson often found himself in a stance of opposition. Yet he never gave up the search for metaphors which would serve as bonds. And he loudly opposed art which sought comfort in itself. "I don't respond," he wrote in 1983,

"like the leading character in 'Apocalypse Now' with 'the horror, the horror', in the face of huge abstract forces, with the notion that human individuals are helpless to change or stop such forces. The drawings of the Hiroshima survivors speak of a resourcefulness, an unalienated attempt at picturing humanity in a way which is horrific but which leaves open the possibility of a warning, intervening, motivating and empathizing. You can paint with the cynical and ironic freedom of the condemned cell; without optimism, without hope, with the drama of self-annihilation centre-stage - but what you communicate and build is of dubious value."

Atkinson's emergence as an artist began at the age of 12, when he won a British National Book League competition. He had "imagined and designed" a book cover of his own, and the awarding of the prize took him down to London. The capital was a foreign world, "full of Teddy boys and bomb sites." This postwar glimpse of glamour left a strong impression. But, for a northern village boy, it seemed "beyond aspiring to." Instead, Atkinson attended Carlisle College of Art, then spent another year at Liverpool School of Art.

At the latter, he met a fellow Northern talent - musician John Lennon. By 1962, however, he was in London, at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools. It was a bastion of respect for craft and patrimony - where he made large, abstract paintings typical of the times. They soon won him acclaim on the gallery circuit, but Atkinson felt uneasy about his success. "It was a little like being a working-class astronaut; I had been yanked completely out of my genuine context." By the early '70s, his alienation had deepened considerably. He then decided he would give up on art completely, but only after he had staged a formal farewell.

This was the 1972 exhibit, "Strike at Brannans", held at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. "Strike" had unexpected results, not least for Atkinson. Not only did the show change his mind about art completely, by showing him how a different kind of practice could function. It also raised his public profile exponentially. In effect, Atkinson's career began with the project - as did his very different kind of activist art.

The show itself concerned a Cleator Moor thermometer factory: the subject of a strike which, then, was already one year old. To explain it, Atkinson employed a range of media: tapes, letters, video, stills, police documents, newspaper clippings. He reproduced the company's 1927 charter in gold - then overprinted it in red with strikers' signatures. The repercussions were striking and immediate. First, the show generated national publicity. Through the sale of prints, it raised funds which were sent to the strikers. Most notably of all, it unionized the firm's London section. With "Strike", Atkinson at last came into his own. "I became," he laughs now, "an immediate cultural terrorist. I finally realized the medium is not the message. Only the message can ever really be the message."

This revelation was soon intensified. After "Strike", a Churchill Fellowship sent Atkinson on visits to Cuba and California. In Havana, he met artists who mixed many tools, using everyday language and objects to make their points. One of their exhibitions in particular astounded him. "It was a show which tried to explain the Vietnam War. There, in the actual museum, they had crashed American bombers." The experience reinforced his childhood observation, that the surrounding social system affected everything.

From Havana, Atkinson flew straight to Los Angeles. There he saw objects, signs and slogans used completely differently. Cuba's street images - the posters, stickers and the imagery - had been motivated by ideals and goals. "In Los Angeles, those signifiers meant something else. They showed me how our society commodifies everything; whether it's food or education, people or art." What, in Cuba, had seemed so inclusive became, in America, the polar opposite. There, it was "all about consumerism and exclusivity".


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