BY Helen Marten in Features | 29 NOV 17
Featured in
Issue 191

Though It Weeps (in the style of a new and brilliant murder)

Helen Marten responds to Ed Atkins’s new work, Old Food, currently showing at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin

BY Helen Marten in Features | 29 NOV 17

This is an odd text: it is the product not of seeing a video or visiting an exhibition. In this sense, it is partially blind, scaffolded from behind-the-scenes ideas rather than visual evidence. These ideas have multiple personalities. They come foremost from Ed Atkins – from access to a Dropbox folder filled with in-progress shreds, words, jpegs, inspires; they come from Contemporary Art Writing Daily – from texts and time spent in conversations I was never privy to; they come from me and you and many others who reside here, all their wicked children and those whose overlaps make us theft artists, complicit plagiarists always en route. Helen Marten

The burger ad is emblematic for how substance and taste have fractured and collapsed deeper into a vacuum of technological reproduction. If the image of the burger performs as pretty as the toothpaste-smiles of advertising, if the triumph of drippy cheese, crisp onions and park-green lettuce is reached at the right level of Photoshop saturation, then deliciousness and material are no longer salient components of satisfaction. Not only fast food but food in general has come to stand for media rubbish, for the empty calories of binge life: prosumer food porn, Instagram accounts curated onto aesthetic small plates. Is this the new abstraction of rationality? The point at which flavour yields to the fabric of stereotype in the form of merchandise? The mechanized voice of the advert claims to be a tomato on a bun, and you can buy it, 200 days old, still fresh, injected with window-cleaning fluid and safe enough to eat. Welcome to aesthetic barbarism; welcome to the happy liberal violence of Ed Atkins’s Old Food (2017).

Ed Atkins, Old Food, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels 

The erotics of eating are so clearly analogous to the erotics of fucking – dripping fruits and rotifers stuffed into holes, squeezed out, exhausted, emptied, enjoyed. Digestion and desire are algorithmic purities, binary functions in graphic symmetry: when you’re full, excrete; when you’re empty, replenish. The lighting of food photography and pornography offer the same blinding scour1; there is little or no background pollution, no dust or leafy landscape but a vacuum of white offering up its eternal self for desecration. The visual components of these worlds are proxies, dangling surrogates on the brink of sexual explicitness: the cucumber dildo, the meaty flaps bitten into, the cute puffy buns, a glistening simulacra of skin, pores and shadow.

In a 2005 US advert for Carl’s Jr. spicy BBQ Burger (tagline: ‘It’s gonna get messy’), Paris Hilton roils around on a car like some sudded, stonking, prize bovine trussed and ready to carve into pieces. she’s washing the car in bathing suit-cum-butcher-twine, morphing ejaculatory spasms of what we presume to be soap with hilarious slow-mo pans of her mouth stuffed with burger. Hilton is debased to the maggoty protein proffer of the minced patty she fellates. But how to penetrate the tautology of cannibalism? In the same way that Atkins’s men gobble down on soft boluses of baby meat, so too does the television audience tactically collude in and consume Hilton’s congeal of shame. Like Atkins’s characters, chomping through metallurgical stew, culture at large is a complicit force, each of us eager participants in an anally sadistic stage of libidinal development. We are all the slack-jawed yokel of this medieval apocalypse. Yet, this collusion is nothing new: even Odysseus on visiting the underworld can communicate with his dead loved ones only by sharing his blood for communal drinking. The crude plasticity of humans to electrify with their carnal moistures proliferates post-death. Is it possible that through the act of sheer love, devotion or desirability you could plausibly devour the subject of this love and escape culpability? On the psychological litmus test, what colour should one turn devouring slabs of baby meat? Is this the apex of love? Carnal fragility, or simply the pure formalism of a suffering through which there can be nothing more than a passage to serenity?

The poignantly curated drop of sauce beside the burger bun is an exercise in indulgent metaphysics. Causality – the metrics of spillage – never happened so perfectly. This spilled moment, too enticingly round to be the stuff of our crappy reality, is our consumer way out, our puddle into another universe. The drop exemplifies the pathos of being a corporate human. It is macerated empathy, sublimation, eroticism. It is a fake and thus a portal. In Atkins’s Old Food, this drop is the metaphorical punctum, which requires exorcising. From here, escapist rhythms occur and it is hard to predict whether his characters perform metamorphic dissembling or divination: spunk sprays onto sandwich, becomes mayonnaise; is dribbled out; falls on floor; becomes a puddle; is slipped over; is dived through to black hole; disappears, swallowed up; emerges through a round window, blotched lighting; is burped; repeats. These are run-on actions as equally generative and corrupting as the grammar used to describe them. Man, boy and baby co-exist like tenses in the same never-ending melodrama, the same gustatory nightmare proselytizing the omnipotence of plasma.

Old Food, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery,
London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels 

And, yet, what a provincial bunch of bananas are these males, already drilled for oil, tapped and gawking in different directions, their co-ordinates fuzzy between cupidity and fear. Willing syrups might ooze from every goddamn opening if pressed; strange, since they trot wearily and cyclically along, as desiccated as bleached coconuts. The undertaker’s convention of incising at the neck, just above the collarbone, to locate and bleed the carotid artery is disregarded: the valves of these bodies pump no liquid. You’d stab them, or haul one of their floating corpses from a pond, and what would come out? Some tannin gunk, brown as an over-baked pretzel? The power of blood has been relocated. These creatures are living sacks of tautology. For theirs is miracle skin, where organs are buffered and replaced with artefacts, data script. Sometimes, there are sutured lips, wax, burning torches or mouths rigged up with impossible, invisible wires. Faces are pasted on. And, in the cases of beheading – and beware: there is often some form of beheading – then the condition of flesh is one of pores stitched back together with a tool magical for its plotting not of protein but of numbers and computer commands. The crude plastic coating of humans, the enamel we call skin, is re-engineered through a delirious schizophrenia machine: alive, dead, buzzing, vacant, bewitched, flattened, exploded, composed. The compositional skeleton is seemingly logical but the degradations of shit, blood, saliva, cum and urine have been elevated, made delicious, magnetic. Whatever they shit out is spread back onto the sandwiches they force down.

The bodies who plod through Atkins’s videos are born backwards, impossibly ancient, but dainty for it and spectral in their possession of wretched lives without beating hearts. I could tell you that underneath the skin of Atkins’s men there exist only pages of paper agitated by scrambled words and numbers in contours of similar length and rhythm. Or the escapement vibrations of the piano hammer of Jürg Frey’s Extended Circular Music No. 2 (2012). Or piles of rocks painted grey. Or white rooms empty of furniture. They would all be close to the truth: that CGI reeks of dishonesty. There is nothing to touch, no smell, just a weird rubbery shell that is both materially dead and data-osmotic. Atkins launches a riotous alchemy of humiliation, a great piling up of the shame of trying to have a body: his is the physiology of humiliation.

Ed Atkins, ‘Old Food’, 2017, installation detail of wall text, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. Courtesy:
the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Mark Blower 

The complexity of Atkins’s work is staggering because animation’s obsession with superiority and realness means that even portraits of immaterial corpses are troubled by the messiness of their bodies, their lifestyles. Intense, these technical images pretend they are non-emotional, symbolic, symptomatic or auxiliary rather than anything as unwieldy as subjective mood. We know better.

I want to skirt around this zombie paradox, so as not to ruin the view of the wounds, yet I can’t help but wonder: will these men die, without recourse to water, eventually? Because what is a body anyway but many barrels of grass and algae and organs? Any body. All of us stacked and puffy: tubby pillows with sallow hairs. (And we mustn’t forget, of course, that rotting and sprouting is still growth.)

In their ultra close-up montages, these bodies meld, too, with icons or the suggestive parsimony of icons, where figure and economy are bolted together at surface level. Yet, for all this conceptual depravity, with the gloss of any CGI there exists a hyperrealism that, through the mallets and conduits of cash, leads us to the suspension of representation, to capitalist realism. It is not a way out, but another perspective – another puddle – which, as the consumer, we are perhaps not yet equipped or able to see through.

Aleksei German’s 2013 filmic masterpiece, Hard to Be a God, is an evident muse for Atkins’s Old Food. Shot in black and white, mostly on hand-held equipment, German’s scenes are humid for their closeness and tactility of abject substance, for their swampy temperature and swell of sepulchral holy shit. Like Old Food, the phlegmatic wretchedness that curses all people of this planet also afflicts the landscape with an obsessive use of filmic pathetic fallacy that literally drenches the screen. Mucus in all its transmutability is hocked around like currency, continually moved from noses onto lips, out of eyeballs and orifices. Bodies sop with congelation of many mutations: faces are spread with the rich ectoplasmic gunk of blood, or is it diarrhea or a putrid conjure, the infected buboes of liquid Black death? German’s effects are the pharmacology of scatology and, like in Atkins’s work, the relentless absurdity explodes the facets of fear into a poetry of human suffering that is vehemently eschatological.

The strange lingual dumbness in Old Food could be linked to the ontological idea that objects are wrapped in objects wrapped in objects. The images here have reached a point of grotesque freedom – an imagistic equivalence of monosyllabic speech. Old Food is haunted by a reciprocal consistent multiplicity, meaning that a perfect, frightening legibility is quite literally always on the cusp of becoming parsable. And because we know these figures are a simulation, they possess an innate violence of proliferation – something akin to the rat or virus. Coupled with their obsessive self-destruction, there is a sense of everything becoming molecular, thus undermining the binding power of a singular body unified by a biological contract of alliance. Perhaps Atkins’s characters are more akin to bastard pets or primal models whose structural relevance is premised on co-existence, on the projection of mimesis by a paying audience.

And here we are again, unable to take our eyes away because we are as disgusted and disgusting as the bodies exhausted before us. We are the capital that ignites them, that fuels the dialogic machine of museum and screen alike. As if to mirror this sentiment of complicity, the architectural setting of Old Food is one of walls built from racks of clothing borrowed from the costume department of the Deutsche Oper. This is theatre’s fourth wall in comically vulnerable penetration. These empty garments encourage pluralist role-play. They are an invitation to be worn, to reverse the linguistic premise of dumb observer by forcing new roles for all as active performers.

Ed Atkins, ‘Old Food’, 2017, installation view at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels; photograph: Mark Blower 

Hung up, these garments are rigged with potential in the same way as Atkins’s men. Without rigging, a modeler’s character is static 3D mesh. Joints and control handles must be added, invisible vector lines plotted to be as technically analogous with a skeleton as possible. This is the framework that enables a facial crumple or backflip, with every handle obeying a kinetic hierarchy. Think, then, of the homographic punning of the word ‘rack’, which unfolds its duty as prop threefold: that of linguistic prop – the colloquial rack of tits, of abs and meat; of the physical rack – the humble wardrobe horizontal; and the metaphoric rack, that screeching rotational machine on which the tortured body is broken and ripped apart.

Another joy is that fabric stinks, it dampens sounds: here are the mysterious odours of the sweat sodden, the sweet, floury perfume of moth eggs, diaphanous gowns ripped through with texture and the runs of sharp fingernails. The costumes give us everything: sexual ghouls, sinister maître d’s, arrogant femmes, whores, kings and legions of false heroes fatigued by their manoeuvres of historicism. Even the medieval arming cap on the man in Old Food is a forgery, as though you could pluck it from his head and see not hair but a new and sucking horror. The setting is stabbed at rather than pronounced and the leagues of time these clothes represent are sedimented and hushed. The etymology of ‘muffle’ performs grandly, deriving from the Old French for ‘thick glove’ or the Middle French ‘to stuff’. There is plenty of stuff and glove here, thick-fingered hands driving loaves into mouths, re-tempering speech, hooking faces off and on, altering the linguistic stuff that instead of pouring from the mouth leaks silently, morosely from anywhere else. These are obtuse and busy languages that disturb and sterilize, all the while guiding us back to the soundless, agitated tickle of the animator’s offstage hand.

1 This idea is inspired by notes from Contemporary Art Writing Daily for the wall texts accompanying Ed Atkins’s Old Food.

Ed Atkins is an artist and writer based in Berlin, Germany. Recent solo exhibitions include MMK, Frankfurt, Germany (2017), and Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy (2016–17). His book, A Primer for Cadavers, was published in 2016 by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Atkins’s exhibition, ‘Old Food’, is on view at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, until 7 January 2018.

Main image: Old Food, 2017, production still (detail). Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York / Rome, and dépendance, Brussels

Helen Marten is an artist and writer based in London, UK. Forthcoming solo exhibitions include: Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands (2018); König Galerie, Berlin, Germany (2018); and Castello di Rivoli, Turin (2019). She is currently working on a novel.