As part of the “Immersion” series, British artist Ed Atkins is presenting an exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau that addresses our ubiquitous escapism to make-believe worlds.

Even in ancient times, opera was seen as an art form that forges links. While initially this merely involved combining staged action and music, more and more elements were added in the cpurse of time that have strongly shaped the view we have of opera today: Costumes, props, stage sets and technology now define our image of opera to a large part. These media are employed to imitate a fictitious reality – to beguile viewers such that they may be better able to emphasize with what is going on in the narrative. British artist Ed Atkins also works with this strategy.

In his exhibition “Old Food,” currently on view at Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, the deception is already rooted in the medium itself: For his video pieces, Atkins creates hyperreal settings using animated CGI avatars, which he then lends his own voice. The three protagonists of “Old Food” are also created in this way. In five rooms, high-definition monitors and flat screens show an enormous baby, a boy in a Victorian costume and a man in a cape, all of whom are engaged in the same activity: crying. Gigantic tears fall from their eyes; they sob with contorted faces. Their facial expressions are dissolved in sadness.

A gigantic baby

However, visitors expecting to find out why the three are sad will be frustrated: Atkin refuses to provide an explanation for his protagonists’ behavior. Instead, the figures soon sit down at a piano. The composition by Jürg Frey resounds in all of the rooms, forming a golden thread. While in one video the boy dressed in medieval gear tickles the ivories in a concrete white cube space, the same thing happens simultaneously in a country home, where the gigantic baby clumsily bashes the keys.

Ed Atkins, Production still for “Old Food”, 2017 Courtesy the artist

Directly next to it there is a further monitor wall, showing the cape-wearing man feebly reach for the keyboard with his hand, while the rest of his body remains on the floor. Even though the videos are synchronized, the situations are never resolved. Instead, the figures Atkins has created seem to be caught in a loop – and thereby in a vicious circle of sadness.

Without personal history

The entire exhibition is wrapped in a cloak of melancholy that is hard for the viewer to throw off. You feel empathy towards the characters, even though you don’t really know what this is actually based on, seeing as Ed Atkin’s figures are not after all real people but merely animations without personal history of any kind.

Ed Atkins, Production still for “Old Food”, 2017 Courtesy the artist
Ed Atkins, “Old Food”, 2017, Installation view, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy the artist

The secret to the emotions evoked here lies in the exaggerated depiction. The reaction to the piece is similar to the one viewers have to fantasy series such as “Game of Thrones,” where it is clear that what is shown is fictional, yet the characters act in ways that seem so real that they elicit empathy. We downright want to succumb to their illusion. The reason why such fantasy shows are so very popular presumably lies first and foremost in the escapism they afford their viewers.

An analogous, historical world

Yet those who believe this phenomenon to have initially arisen out of video games or virtual reality are mistaken. Opera, mentioned at the beginning of this text, also works with this desire to break away into an imaginary world. It thus seems hardly surprising that Ed Atkins has cooperated with Deutsche Oper for his exhibition “Old Food”. Altogether 280 meters of coatracks with costumes, here presented as “ready-mades,” are on view alongside his high-definition screens.

Ed Atkins, Production still for “Old Food”, 2017 Courtesy the artist

The costumes are taken from a number of productions ranging from “The Marksman” to “Macbeth,” and include everything from rag-like skeletons to beaded dresses. An analogue, historical world seems to be juxtaposed with a digital one here. But appearances are deceptive: the costumes merely create an impression of historicity, without actually being old or reproduced in facsimile. In this they are very much similar to Atkin’s avatars, who also feign to be something they are not: human.

Costumes are nothing but empty husks

However, this is not the sole similarity between the computer-generated figures and those drawn from the Deutsche Oper stores. What is made clear here is that both are also accessed in a similar way. Just as Atkins buys his avatars on online platforms and makes them his own by animating them and lending them his voice, the costumes are also nothing but empty husks that want to be filled. The costumes only fulfil their purpose once an actor wears them, plays in them, sings in then and thereby makes them his or her own.

Ed Atkins, “Old Food”, 2017, Installation view, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Photo: Mark Blower. Courtesy the artist

It slowly becomes clear that unlike traditional exhibitions, “Old Food” places the focus not on what is shown but what is absent. The avatars and costumes symbolize the absence of a real body. The latter only enters the exhibition as the viewer does – thereby completing Atkin’s production at Martin-Gropius-Bau. The wall text in the exhibition’s antechamber, composed by the platform “Contemporary Art Writing Daily” can thus be seen as a prologue to “Old Food” – even though it only becomes clear why after having visited the show: “The museum depends on your body.”