Charles Atlas / Tornado Warning
Posted by: John Wilmot
For sheer energy, it’s hard to beat Tornado Warning by video artist Charles Atlas. Easily my favorite TBA 10 installation at The Works, the two rooms of projections offer very different but equally exciting experiences. Inspired by memories from his Midwestern childhood of — you guessed it — tornado warnings, the videos capture both the tense anticipation and the ensuing chaos of a life altering force of nature.
The first room offers a single video, but it is the star of the show. Beginning with bars of white light; nervously pulsating, splitting, multiplying, they gradually become a large grid. The grid recedes slowly; the glowing lines against black seem to get farther away. Then they creep out of the flat screen, along the floor and walls, seeming to envelop us in mathematically delineated Newtonian space, bringing us into the world where something gravely serious is about to happen.

All the while, low, thundering sounds can be heard in the next room. Whether by design or luck, they remind us that disaster approaches. The rational grid seems like a desperate intellectual exercise, a meteorological folly that is attempting to measure and predict, a grasping for control where none can be had. Finally, a countdown begins, and then numbers flash by in the squares of the grid. Something is happening. It’s about to happen. IT. IS. HAPPENING. Then poof, it’s all gone, and numbers go spinning around in the swirl of a tornado — the same numbers flashing in the grid, the measurements and control, the predictions — all of them torn away from their foundations and sent flying.
Down a little custom-built hall lies the second room, which backs onto the first. Here there are four videos, and they put us in the heart of the storm. The largest and most visually arresting of the group is utterly simple but effective. Projected across both walls and the floor is a spiraling pattern with a dark vortex, a literal representation of the tornado. In another corner, on a sheer screen, we see objects spinning in the room of an empty, wrecked house — a lawnmower, a teddy bear, a chair, a milk crate. Another video of a spiral floats and spins around the different walls. And finally, the only conventionally projected video, seen on a flat wall, is of unrelated scenes from the world before and outside the storm, with undulating circular rings overlaid — worries and concerns, previously important, now subjugated by the immediacy and power of sublime nature. Along with the crashing, booming, grating sounds, the effect is energized and chaotic… like being, yes, at the center of a storm.
Simple, well conceived and well executed, Tornado Warning is a stand out and one of the few works at The Works I’ve recommended to friends. And I myself keep going back whenever I’m in the building. It’s definitely worth the time, every time.