At only 35 years old, Ed Atkins is already something of a luminary in the contemporary
arts scene. He has exhibited in the Serpentine Gallery, the Hirschorn, MMK, and
currently has an exhibition, entitled “Old Food”, at Martin-Gropius- Bau here in Berlin.
Most of Atkins’ work consists of digitally rendered video environments, where human
avatars live out Samuel Beckett-esque scenes interspersed with printed or spoken poetry.
He buys the avatars pre-built and then animates them with facial recognition software,
often blending expressive signifiers in jarring and disturbing ways (imagine weeping eyes
and a gentle smile). “Old Food” consists of five rooms filled with screens showing
Atkins’ work: videos running on loops of varying lengths. Huge racks of old costumes from the Deutsche Oper create a corridor system that lends a bit of dimensional order to the space.
The poster for the exhibit shows a sandwich with tomato, lettuce and cheese, topped with
a bunch of babies, and finished off with a big brown splotch of what one can only assume
is shit. The first time I went to see the show, I couldn’t find the sandwich anywhere, and I
left with the suspicion that it was buried somewhere within a video loop. What if the
video loops weren’t as short as they seemed, and were in fact hours long, with footage
you could only see every few hours? Sleek Mag sent me back to spend four hours inside
the exhibit, to crack the secrets of “Old Food” and record my experience. The following
is a diary of those four hours.
12:22 –I get to the gallery.
There are two screens in the first room, the first of which is long and vertical and
alternates between three animated figures – an old monk, a baby, and a young boy
dressed in a garish purple & orange Victorian outfit with frills on the wrists.
The second screen is something like 4 x 6 meters, and shows a mostly bare, white room,
with a piano against the left wall and a big round hole in the right wall. The scale feels
pretty close to life-sized. There’s hay scattered on the ground in front of the hole, and a
creepy dragging, clunking noise coming from outside it.
Nothing happens for about ten minutes.
12:48 – The maudlin boy jumps in through the hole in the wall.
He staggers over to the piano, sits down, and starts to play.
The music is very slow. A plaque explains that the entire piece consists of only 24 notes,
each spaced eight seconds apart. Eight seconds is the amount of time that it takes for the
human auditory system to “forget” a note (we experience melodies as strings of
connected notes). So the process of listening to these notes, and failing to string them
together, is itself a process of forgetting.
12:53 –The song finishes, and the screen goes black.
When it lights up again, the screen shows the bare white space again. I walk to the next
room. This one has two screens, side-by- side, each the same size as the one in the room
The left screen is on a loop where every minute, the maudlin boy appears on the crest of
the hill and staggers down the path and off the left side of the screen. On the right screen,
a television sits on top of the piano, playing the movie Frankenstein.
13:04 – Two things happen.
Instead of the boy coming over the hill, this time it’s a
giant baby, suspended in the air, with its feet buffing along the ground. On the far
left side of the screen, a figure in a cloak starts dragging itself along the path,
towards the piano in the trees.
The baby floats into the cabin and starts flailing around like a terrible puppet, scattering
books and glass decanters. By the time it stops, the cloaked guy has gotten to the piano
in the trees and flung one arm onto the keys. The baby glides down in front of the
cabin’s piano, and they both start to play.
The song is the same as the one in the first room, and the sound between the rooms
bleeds enough that you can tell the videos are playing at the same time. They’re
synchronous, if not in technical harmony.
13:09 – The screens go black.
Still no sandwich.
There’s a sort of fade-in effect as light filters back in, the television comes back on, and
the boy starts loping down the hill once more.
13:19 – The baby / cloaked figure thing happens again, and the song starts to play.
13:25 –The screens go black.
So the videos are on a roughly 15-minute loop, and for the first ten minutes basically
nothing happens, you’re staring at static space. The mini-loops (the boy running through
the field) disguise the larger ones, allowing the viewer to believe that they’ve seen the
full loop after just a minute. Plenty of people pause for only a moment or two before
moving on, totally missing the action.
The fact that Atkins lines the videos up with one another means you need at least twenty
minutes to actually see both of them, half of which you’ll spend watching an empty
room. There seems to be symmetry between this and the slow notes of the song — a
sense of things forgotten, or never known.
13:49 – I’m pretty sure one of the guards is watching me.
I’ve been in the same room for almost an hour, so I guess that makes sense. Maybe
lingering for too long is a red flag to art guards. Maybe it indicates you’re getting ready
to attack the art, like steeling yourself before a dive.
I move on. The next two rooms both have single vertical screens, one with a baby
standing in the rain, and one with the monk figure.
14:23 – That guard is totally following me.
Every time I move from one room to the next, he does the same. A couple of times we
make vaguely chilly eye-contact. Though, then again, you probably don’t get to see
much action as a museum guard, and I’m as good a chance at generating some drama as
he’ll get today. I wonder what these guards think about the art they protect, and how that
changes after being around it for days, weeks, months.
14:29 – The screens go black.
I go to the last room, where there’s another vertical screen. This one features the maudlin
boy again, sitting on a stool, facing away. There’s hay scattered on the ground and the
same weird lurching sound from in the first big room, so maybe this is supposed to be the
space outside the hole in the wall. Once a minute, the boy turns around and gasps.
14:34 – This time when the boy turns around, he looks at the viewer and asks, “Sir,
who is all the dead?”
14:50 – “Sir, who is all the dead?”
So this video is on a fifteen minute loop too. At one point the boy jumps off the stool and
runs off-screen. I get the idea that maybe this is where he comes from when he jumps
through the hole in the first room, like it’s a circuit, so I wait for him to run offscreen
again and then jog back to the first room. The security guard follows me through two
rooms and then gives up.
When I get to the first room the screen is still showing an empty space, no kid. So there’s
no “larger” circuit – or whatever that circuit is, it wasn’t designed with a temporal
15:38 – Three and a half hours and still no sandwich.
I decide to Hail Mary this, and ask a guard if they’ve seen it. It turns out the guards haven’t seen the sandwich either. Also, they’re all wearing
little green ear-plugs.
16:11 – Everyone seems to have gotten the idea of lying down in front of the screens,
which is good.
My hip kind of hurts after standing for so long, so I decide to sit down, in front of the
screen with the hillside. In the actual outdoors, the sun comes out from behind a cloud,
and the light in the gallery warms and lifts. I wonder for a second whether it might filter
through the back of the screen and show as a ray in the digital field. And no, the screen is
pretty thick, light wouldn’t do that. Still, the doubling effect is felt, that blurring of where
one thing ends and the other begins.
Atkins doesn’t seem to be all that interested in making one coherent point with Old Food.
Rather, he establishes certain thematic nodes (embalmment, memory, disembodiment),
and lets the juxta-/ contraposition do the rest of the work. It doesn’t seem like there’s a
loop any bigger than the 15-minute ones. I guess I’m bothered by that, and not totally
sure where to place the idea that the main image advertising the show never actually
appears in it. A charitable reading might nod to the way this echoes the concepts of
identifiers and forgetting, but I think it’s more likely that he just didn’t find a place for
the sandwich clip to fit.
Fortunately, that doesn’t interrupt the show’s emotional core: a deeply felt exploration of
remembrance, memory, traces of things past. I find myself repeating that line — “Sir,
who are all the dead?” It brings to mind all of the things that have happened that we’ll
never have any idea about. This is balanced against Atkins’ avatars, which seem to be
pretty much the exact opposite of “all the dead” – though they’ve never had bodies, or
lives, they exist, and we have to deal with them. They take up emotional space in the
present in a way that the dead (or most of them) can’t. And that leaves us — the living
ones, imagining the dead while watching these avatars — to find ourselves somewhere in
Old Food is showing at the Martin-Gropius- Bau through 7 January 2018.