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(REVIEW) Old Food, by Ed Atkins

Jon Petre takes a hearty bite out of Ed Atkins’ Old Food (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019), musing on the transfiguration of consumption and disgust into a carnivalesque prose poetry of mastication, food prep and Dadaist stylistics.

> There’s nothing worse than food cooked badly, is there? On our street we used to have sleepovers at a friend’s house. His parents couldn’t cook for shit. To this day I recoil to think of breakfast at his, which was always lukewarm beans, underdone toast and grey sausages, their skins thick and resistant to slicing, the meat inside limpid and oozing water. You’re more likely to remember an awful meal, I think, than a decent or just an average one. You remember consumption when it’s disgusting.

> Bad food sticks in the memory as well as the throat. It takes you back: a glimpse of grey sausages and I’m a twelve-year-old snob again. The opening scene of Ed Atkins’ Old Food  (2019) strikes a similar chord:

Spring finds medium son just on the floor. Looks maybe six? evil, holds the red plastic-handled table knife in a small right fist, fishes a slice from the open bag of bad read with a left.

> What follows is a slightly sickening description of buttering bread with ‘crumb-stuck margarine’, margarine on the foil lid, margarine glistening on the kid’s skin and an old sock where it’s smudged in the food-prep process. It’s such a specific, carefully observed scene, with all the detail of a memory. The speaker destabilises the workaday and familiar (buttering bread, being awake before your mum at the weekend) and makes it an uncanny, vaguely gross and alien process.  And that’s just for starters: welcome to Old Food.

> Old Food began life in 2017 as an art installation at the Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin. I didn’t see it. From what I gather from videos, images and reviews online, animation formed a central part of the exhibition. In Atkins’ films, hyper-realistic people gorged themselves on food, eating and dying in some nightmarish uncanny universe. Old Food became infamous for a CGI shit sandwich that was full of tiny babies. In one film, a creepy child jerkily crosses the room and plays the piano as a storm rages outside. This book, elegantly published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in their signature blue French-flapped style, distils that visual exhibition into a verbal form: a fatty lump of consumption and disgust rendered into prose poetry.

> The speaker, or speakers, takes us through a series of meals and mealtimes. I felt like I was reading someone’s hardscrabble childhood, picturing Lord of the Flies children foraging for herbs and thieving cast-offs in a violent dystopia. But it feels wrong to ascribe Old Food such a linear narrative. No, Old Food is a carnival. A parade of savage mealtimes, a festival of overindulgence and late-capitalist excess. It is a meditation on the strange ways that consumerism has chewed up our animal instincts of desire and consumption.

> Old Food is narrated in second-person, and I was transfixed by the ‘we’ of the speaker: ‘We used to cut most everything with fridge-cold clammy chicken’, ‘we’d cut parachute silk / with skate wings’, ‘We became happy brutes’. For whom are they speaking? Are they carnal and transgressive as a collective, or is the speaker hiding in a crowd from individual responsibility? Vaguely troubling, rarely elucidated.

> Like artistic composition, food prep is both destructive and creative – taking a dozen bitty parts from a dozen separately whole things and making a composite other whole-thing whose wholeness depends entirely on how well it’s made, how well done-it is, how refined your taste is. Like art, food sounds mad. In its twisty language and wordplay, Old Food resembles some of the best Surrealist poetry (I won’t name names, taste being subjective) as well as the Futurists’ Manifesto of Futurist Cuisine (1930). The Futurists fetishized elaborate eating rituals as a way to cement ideas of nationalism and the supremacy of masculine desire. (they tried to ban pasta because it’d stop Italians from being uber-mensch.) Old Food comes out closer to Dada – sure food can be art, but it’s still full of shit!

> Words are chopped up and blitzed into paste, disassembled and reconstituted to suit the speaker’s palate. Peanut butter on bread is measured in ‘knifefuls’, zucchini is ‘scabbed’ in Tempura, and the ‘hot long release’ of pissing in a field sounds like ‘the frying pan sizzle’. This is poetry for a nation in turmoil, where even the language around who we are a nation and what is normal has started to go off. Old Food brings us down to its level.

> A roasted goose has ‘opened [its] legs’ for cooking; filling the bird’s cavity with stuffing is to ‘engorge to torture’. Eating has forever been synonymous with sex, but Old Food doesn’t take any prisoners – cooking juices are like body fluids, feasting is fucking, and so on. Sex, violence and eating – are all the same desire, Atkins suggests, carnal impulses that poetry is always better for embracing.

> Yet there is a tinge of desolation to all this gluttony and lust, no matter how fun. Old Food’s epigraph is from Georges Bataille: being formless, we may as well imagine it as ‘something like a spider or spit’. There is no grand narrative behind eating three meals a day until you die. Imagine every meal you’ve ever eaten, the good and the bad, the Wotsits and the Wellingtons, the slurped oysters and the Daddies’ sauce and, no matter how delicious or well-prepared they were, it’d all be the same in a vast, Sisyphean heap. There’s horror between those buns.

> ‘What’s at stake with this sandwich?’ the speaker asks, and the answer is desire itself: which desires we’re willing to admit to, which inhibitions we’re willing to shed. Whether it’s food or sex, someone is trying to sell us a fantasy of consumption; to think of either as sacred is absurd, Atkins seems to say, and in Old Food we’re better off revelling in the shit than swallowing it.

There used to be justice rather than I don’t know chocolate eggs. There used to be rallying cries’d rather than just a rich man suppressing belches at you. There used to be an unopened box and an open front door.

> By revelling in the shit, with its imagery of disgust and vocabulary of consumption, Old Food makes a stink about the sourness of our sex and food after late capitalism’s had its way with it. It’s credit to Atkin’s talent as an artist that he can move between visual art and prose poetry without seeming to lose his bite. If Old Food is like Surrealist poetry, then it is because you can enjoy the poetry as much for its puns as its absurdist critique of late capitalism. And for all the Bataille and nihilism, Old Food is a reminder that consumption is fun. Forget health cleanses and behaving yourself in public. What’s wrong with wanting crisp sandwiches and dirty sex?


Text: Jon Petre Published: 7/7/20


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