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Making people cry: Ed Atkins

British artist Ed Atkins on combining video, opera costumes and tears in "Old Food", his largest exhibition to date, on through Jan 7 at Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Image for Making people cry: Ed Atkins

Photo by Mark Blower

British artist Ed Atkins on combining video, opera costumes and tears in Old Food, his largest exhibition to date.

Image for Making people cry: Ed Atkins

Courtesy of Finnish National Gallery and Petri Virtanen

Extended through January 7 due to popular demand, Atkins’ labyrinth of video walls and opera costumes in the Martin-Gropius-Bau is inhabited by a baby, a boy and a man in seemingly existential despair. We asked Atkins what the crying was all about.

How does this exhibition deviate from your past work?

Where previously I have been working on one or two discrete works, in this exhibition there are not really boundaries between the works. The whole thing is snagged in a kind of constant purgatory where everything turns over – where it is the same, but different. I wanted that to play out physically in the way that people negotiated the space. I wanted the whole thing to be something to explore, but I did not want it to be conclusive.

So, there is a temporal play between the videos on display.

Yeah, totally. It’s all on one network, so they are all the same length and they all loop at the same time. There are points when characters leave their screen and barrel into another one, but there’s not really a narrative to it. Or, if there is, it’s really the most simple thing, like: “something happens”, and that’s it. Or, something has happened and I missed it. Or, why are they all crying? I mean, the reality is that I made them cry, which is really weird. In terms of a real emotional response to something, these are just figures. They are not real.

Do you think there’s something poetic about crying?

Yeah, surely – insofar as the whole thing is ‘capital R’ Romantic, and the poet is a kind of romantic figure. Sentiment and excessive emotion is part of it, but I also like the idea that everyone is constantly crying. There’s really never a beginning or an end. There’s a pervasive melancholy to the whole thing, all the time, always. I wanted to push and pull between levels of artifice and ask: What is fake? Including history and including feeling.

What do you mean by artifice?

Like everything I do, but especially in this show, artifice operates at a very structural level. You’re constantly shown the ‘behind’ of something, like the archive of costumes which is usually in a basement in Moabit somewhere. Exhibiting them in the way that they are usually stored is a kind of perverse privilege. It’s not how you are supposed to see opera. In the same way, the idea of being able to walk behind video screens and see the mass of wires and cables is extended into the scenes that are being played out in between “scenes”. What is the actual event? Nowadays, the common way of speaking of the apocalypse is as though it is already happening. It is a slow creep kind of ending, like global climate change. It’s always too late. I wanted to make a work like that, where it was too late to redeem it.

Is that existential?

I guess so. Everything feels like it is nearly operating like an allegory – it’s just that we don’t know what the moral of the story is.

What about the piano piece by Jürg Frey that scores your exhibition?

The piano piece became a sigil for my existence for about a year. [Frey] has an extraordinary method which is basically composing for the performer. When you play it, you are so aware of every press of every key – and it’s really hard to play because of the onus on such minimal aspects. There’s something massively meditative in it. Also, it’s another loop – it’s another thing that could go on forever, but doesn’t.

Ed Atkins: Old Food Through Jan 7 | Martin-Gropius-Bau, Kreuzberg