Ed Atkins: Olde Food
26 April - 2 June, 2018
Review by Matthew Turner
It was a hot day when I visited Ed Atkins’ current show Olde Food at Cabinet Gallery. People lay happily in the sun-drenched grass of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens as if they were at the beach. In much the same way as the holiday makers in Jaws, little did they know that Olde Food lay in wait for them at the parks corner, ready to disrupt their idyllic sun lounging.
As you enter the show a tumult of white noise like acid rain hits you as screens blare out CGI figures, seemingly rotting from the inside. Then, there’s a moment’s quell in the discordance as the films reload to restart their Kafkaesque pointless repetitions — a vacuum that appears to suck the insides from the bodies.
The exhibition is full of bodies without organs, or, things stripped of their inner circuitry or content, mainly meaningless apart from their sinisterly wipe-clean and overblown surface appearances. Olde Food has a surface but no nourishing inner content; credits to a film are shown that never started nor did it ever have a core narrative or story; a soaked and constantly crying man looks for sympathy from the viewer, without the capacity to learn there is none forthcoming; we see a hermit’s cell without a hermit, a double absence in that a hermit is detached from real life, but they are also missing from the animation itself, and wall texts make reference to a world outside of the exhibition that doesn’t exist. Finally, the Olde food comes back around, and we see limp corpses piling up into a sandwich, but again, they are empty cadavers — junk food — and they don’t provide any nutrients.
The exhibition is recursive throughout in this way, akin to the acid reflux we experience from consuming old food — i.e., bad content. We usually learn from repetition, or find it comforting, but Atkins uses recurrence to make us experience the increasing stupidity of his smorgasbord of characters or ‘crash test dummies’, as one of the wall texts suggests.
Previously, Akins’ work was purely screen based, but here he has experimented with making his digital exploration of materials manifest, and the friction between these two realms is incredibly powerful. A multi-story clothing rail of old theatre costumes bisects the exhibition and brings the emptiness of the screen personas into the real world. The clothes are a real surface but have no body, and the characters on the screens have seemingly real surfaces without, as we find, the correct inner machinery to make them work properly. We use clothing and social media to manipulate our flesh, just how Atkins’ characters on screen are made from artificial husks. So maybe we are not so dissimilar after all.
The exhibition is glutted with content, but all the bodies are phantom limbs, present but also absent; like the white noise it emits at the entrance, the show contains everything and nothing all at once. All the variants of body on display are pure prosthesis just as our shallow digital bodies that increasingly eat into our material psyches are, rendering us ever increasingly as digital content and information without a physical presence. We may adjoin the internet to ourselves as self-improvement measure, but as Freud speculated, when we use prosthetic limbs such as these to improve our lives, we also take something away, and Olde Food shows what mouldy mess would be left over if this were taken to its logical extreme. Perhaps, it’s not a shark that lies in wait at the exhibition, but a worrying projection of our future.