[Review] How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dumb: Ed Atkins’s Old Food at the Venice Biennale 2019 — Patrick O’Neill

Ed Atkins’ Old Food, Arsenale, La Biennale di Venezia, Italy, 11 May 2019 – 24 Nov 2019

A looming two-tiered rack of theatrical costumes cuts the space in half to produce a foreboding sense of story, performance and corporeality. Elsewhere adorning the walls are chiselled stone didactic plaques and multiple impossibly sharp video screens. On them are simulations. Virtual experiments with actors rendered to a level of fidelity seemingly beyond my actual capacity to register them. One plaque asserts a nightmarish description of life in the Middle Ages, while another tells a slapdash history of crash test dummies.

This is the first view of Old Food by Ed Atkins at the 2019 Venice Biennale. The British contemporary artist has made a name for himself as a leading figure at the forefront of digital rendering and ultra high-definition video. His work often takes the form of multimedia installations which combine visceral moving ipmage with sound, text, photography, poetry, and drawing. With Atkins, the surface of the hyperreal image and the visibility of the apparatuses used to produce it are often foregrounded as a way to interrogate the material realities of the physical and virtual worlds. After major solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1, Palais de Tokyo, Tate Britain, and the Serpentine Gallery, Atkins brings his uncanny and unsettling brand of immersive simulation to a global audience at the Biennale.[1]

Ed Atkins, Old Food, Venice Biennale, 2019 (photo: Sergei Zinchuk)

Here, Atkins’ trademark figures are moped around in an apparent attempt to demonstrate their immutability to the physical and psychological conditions they’re being tested against. One figure, a peasant man, stumbles drunk-like down a hill, past a piano (pictured, above), and off screen, only to appear again every few minutes, seemingly looped within a closed circuit. Another is a giant ballooned baby, who floats down the same hill on the same screen as the peasant, feet limp and scraping along the dirt path. But instead of disappearing off screen to the left, it careens to the right and onto a second screen beside the first where it now appears inside a cabin (pictured, below). It bounces around wildly, knocking over anything and everything before being made to settle down at the piano – just in time for the peasant man to reappear on the first screen and start his own loop over again. He stumbles down the hill as before, but this time collapses on the ground in front of the piano outside. Our view cuts to a close-up where a hand reaches up from below and hovers just above the keys.

Ed Atkins, Old Food, Venice Biennale, 2019 (photo: Sergei Zinchuk)

These figures are coordinated with yet a third who performs on still another screen. On this one, a boy dressed in Victorian garb is launched through a thick round hole cut into the side of a cold white-cube room. He lands with a tumble and gets up before heading for the only other thing in this otherwise barren room – which is, of course, a piano.

All three figures then begin to play, in exact synchronicity, the most haunting barely-tune ever heard.[2] One note. Then an eight-second pause. Then another. It generates discordance with maddening, mathematical precision. These eight seconds constitute, I understand, the time it takes to forget a note. They are coordinating a kind of sonic amnesia – the notes barred from harmony and bereft of relationship. It is a tune at odds, a collection of parts, and it is agonizing. One note plays just as the previous one slips from memory. They are disparate and individualised, impossible to hold on to.

These figures seem almost helpless in the face of their own emptying performance. As if programmed to execute an incoherency. Their looping routine, punctuated by this concert whose coordination seems almost incidental, reads like a deranged disappearing act. Their virtual existence is engendered and pervaded by this condition of isolation and loneliness, and they seem to hold it within as a tangible void.

They are hollow, composed of only a single organ that acts like an impenetrable barrier against any of our attempts to penetrate them. Their unreality acts as a crystal skin. Like a perfectly repeated atomic arrangement, they surround this vacuum within, their own inherent inability to be. They are empty things.

Yet it is true, there is sadness on their faces. Expressions inscribed by facial recognition software which gives them a sick verisimilitude. But it’s a distinctly parodic register of performing human. Rivers gush down their faces and glob obnoxiously on their chins – but are they actually sad? Maybe they are mourning, but what have they lost? Their behaviour, ceaseless, produces no narrative or meaning, and suggests something rather pathological instead. With each passing loop they erase any progress gained. Their own history, too, seems a fiction. Caught in a repeated loop, these simulated figures seem to exist for nothing more than their own repeated performance. Maybe ‘melancholy’ would be a more accurate word for this attempted emotion. Maybe they are experiencing an absence, their own ontological vacuum?

Or maybe the melancholy being registered is ours? But what did we lose?

I realize that their pure and crystalline surface is scratching back at me. Something has reached beyond them to seep inside my own body. It doesn’t so much as enter me as empty me. Once inside, it is hard and hitting. A kind of distributed thunk that hits me all over and everywhere at once. Visually and conceptually they are bricks, walling me out from within. They are stacked together, sometimes dropped into a sandwich with brown sauce and chairs. All gloopy and globbing, glistening with the food-porn gluttony of a fantasy corporeality. But at the same time, they flatten, vacate, and lay waste.

Our relationship to them feels increasingly complex. They seem to prick at something important, albeit elusive. Something we can neither let go of nor really sink our teeth into. It would be easy to cast them aside as sophisticated fascinations. They may be things which bear no fraternity to us except in their hyperreal resemblance, but even this admission feels somehow dangerous. It produces an inkling that perhaps we’ve got it wrong, that it might be us who are made in their image and not the other way round.

Barely capable of arranging these thoughts into a tune, my own mind is left dizzy. That which is meant to resolve instead leaves me frustrated and dumb. Nothing actually speaks and everything cries. An abhorrent noise. The scenes now appear as strange eerie sets, non-places lacking any real backstory. If they are dummies and these are crash test experiments, what scenario are they rehearsing? To what higher purpose do they perform? This whole thing is uncanny. These dummies either do not belong where they are, or else it is their nature that has somehow been displaced. An experiment gone awry and left running without supervision.

A simulation, a representation, a copy. They ought to hold some recall to that which they portend, but they do not. They have forsaken the scenario in whose name they perform. A simulation which exists for its own repeated simulation. The didactic plaques which surround us feel ostentatious and proplike. Carved into stone and fluent in artspeak, their proposed discourse doesn’t so much as cohere what we witness as render it into something cold and miasmatic. Like very old artificial food whose inability to decay marks it as threateningly more-than-real; horribly inedible and full of spores. A sickly perfect burger whose meaning is felt nowhere in particular, yet everywhere all at once. Invisible and tending to infect.

The costumes, as well, take on a different tone. They occupy way too much space, and look wasted without bodies inside to habit them. Our own bodies, too, feel cumbersome. The space is too cramped and the screens too close. Everything is cluttered with bodies; meat both real and made up. An exhibition of our unresolved relationship to fiction.

The Man, The Boy, and The Baby resound as models of dead matter; skin around dark space; or carrier bags of irretrievable meaning. They exist, again negatively, in a space of non-narrativity. The stage they inhabit facilitates neither the growth of character nor the development of any discernible plot. Although they wouldn’t be out of place in some quick hit bar-joke[3], they instead loop in a place where no punchline ever arrives. Or if it had, we’re so far after the event that it ceases to be relevant.

Their hyperreality starts to reek again as some kind of tumorous[4] growth threatens to envelope us forever. This sick immersive fantasy compels me to leave and, as I do, I pass a screen turned vertically on its side, resembling the orientation of the smartphone now instinctively in my hands. My own unconscious impulse manifesting before me. On this screen the three protagonists take turns gawping at me (pictured, below). Thick glycerine tears glob about their eyes, nose and chin. Disgusting. And in the corner is a small, unassuming Facebook logo.

Ed Atkins, Old Food, Venice Biennale, 2019 (photo: Patrick O’Neill)

It just sits there, hardly noticeable. So small and without performance that it feels overwhelmingly strange. And also aware of me. Like it’s lying in wait. And then it pricks me, sharper than anything – a tingling animalistic response conjures itself within me. I get the feeling it thinks I’m its prey.

As I take a few videos of the installation to share online, I wonder what it means to describe something as more than real; as hyperreal? If something can be more real than reality, then reality itself seems to be a rather precarious concept. And circular. As if it’s held together only through definition against that which we decide is not real. A wholly negative construct. The role of fantasy in our daily lives now seems to be much bigger than some sort of creative escape or the simple freeplay of the imagination. The pretence that such realities are simulated now seems to conceal the extent to which my own reality is composed of routine simulations – of labour, care and relationships. Activities increasingly performed for their own sake and which provide value and identity insofar as they represent value and identity.

The impossibility to cohere this whole experience into an easily digestible discourse feels nauseating, but also, surprisingly, offers some potential for hope. As if to be ‘dumbed’[5], as Atkins put it recently in a conversation to fellow artist Mark Leckey, now feels like a position of resistance or liberation against this convoluted construction. Perhaps to be below the level of discourse is to be beyond the confines of narrative. To be sublingual and unfettered by the technology of language is to resituate feeling as an integral creative force. That to feel is somehow an ability reserved for the uniquely real and something which might allow for a positive definition of reality; of existence. A kind corpo-reality that those virtual bodies inherently lack and for which melancholy now seems a wholly appropriate response. Though of course, in the end, it is a melancholy only we can feel.


Patrick O’Neill is an artist and writer born and raised on the traditional, unceded and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples (Vancouver, Canada). He is an MA candidate in Contemporary Art Practice (Critical Practice) at the Royal College of Art in London, UK where he currently works with performance, video, writing, sculpture and installation to interrogate the relationship between subjectivity, thought, and madness.

Published in partnership with Everything Forever, organised by Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art.  

[1] Old Food was previously shown at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin (2017) and at Cabinet in London (2018).

[2] The tune is a rendition of a composition by Swiss composer Jürg Frey

[3] Atkins has actually dealt with this subject matter before in Ribbons (2014), where a pub patron named Dave waxes poetic while urinating in a glass.

[4] Atkins has spoken previously (in an interview with Mitch Speed on Art Basel) about the impossibility of proving that his work doesn’t produce tumours within the viewer. Something which initially appears in his collection of texts, A Primer for Cadavers (2016), and which follows loosely after William Burroughs’s notion that “language is a virus.”

[5] In an online interview with Louisiana Channel, Mark Leckey says that he was told in a recent conversation with Atkins that, “he [Atkins] doesn’t want art to make him think, he wants it to make him dumb. He wants to be dumbed by art. To not think.”