Ed Atkins’s A Primer for Cadavers
Ed Atkins is an artist famous for challenging the expectation that language provides clarity. A prolific writer, his videos often combine musing texts with hyperreal computer generated imagery. In his works, image and text are so deeply intertwined with one another that they nearly operate as one. A Primer for Cadavers, Atkin’s first collection of writing, is devoid of the visual immersion accustom to his work. Instead it relies on the materializing capacity of language, manipulating its mechanics to confront its usual elucidating role. Given their own space, his writing zeros in more closely on his recurring concerns: the body and its makeup, cerebral processing, the cadaver, and above all the versatile application of language.
The collection includes texts involved in his video work, as well as previously unpublished writing. The same themes appear throughout the book, often as repeated phrases. These recursive concerns are the perfect motif through which Atkins breaks down and studies the many affective styles, tones, and parameters of writing. Each text self-referentially plays with its status as as literature: poetic slashes, camera directions, and isolated ellipses are sprinkled throughout; the formatting is constantly altered by major typographic intrusions; monologues slip into narrative without warning; paragraphs begin in the middle of unintroduced thoughts; images, items, and events are dismembered from their adjectives. In mishandling the tools, Atkins points to a space accessible only in reading the error, a space that exists in the gap of his disjointed, dislocated sentences and commands.
The titular text of the book, “A Primer for Cadavers,” performs this erotic disjoint between the text and its description. The narrator creates the setting, taking the reader through some sort of glue factory or university morgue, pointing out a vat of PVA glue in the corner and the heavy, Frankensteinian thud of the cadaver’s gait in the distance. It is easy to get lost in the musings, as the narrator monologues on the healthy tones of piss and the various penetrability of skulls. The scenery is continuously interrupted by brutalist stage direction:
“Can you smell that?
The refrain, in its poetic jolt, acts as a scaffold for the speaker’s snowballing line of thought. It has an almost slapstick quality intertwined with its violence. With each “(*SMACK!*),” we are aware of our own skull’s density. It demands we register the “various glue smells,” the piss, the “peroxide filling the air,” and the “infinite tonnage of cosmic space.” As the writing establishes these impossible spaces, it also materializes the onomatopoeia.
A different sort of lyrical composition occurs when reading “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” as opposed to viewing it. In the video piece, the text speaks through the staged body; it occupies a manifold existence, juggling roles as subtitle, narration, stage direction, internal monologue. When the image of this body isn’t present, the syntax is far more aggressive. The text alternates between verses from the Gilbert Sorrentino poem “The Morning Round Up” (1971), descriptions of spatial parameters (“Down here there is no room for human life,” “Down here everything is STRUCTURAL”), and dedications to objects and physics (“This one goes out to the damp clothes balled / up and forgotten in the washing machine,” “This one goes out at a terrific velocity”). Each verse meanders into its own diatribe, indexed by their respective typographic handling, creating structure in the form of a syntactic callback. Atkins pulls apart the guiding yet malleable aspects of grammar to form a visual lexicon that, in its disparate and confounding use, actually pierces through the space between language and image.
Atkins’s writing requires the reader to physically feel the words, as in “Air for Concrete”: “I want to make you aware of my mouth. I want to map my mouth comprehensively using the word ‘smoke,’ and make you, you know, ‘breathe’ it.” This text operates as a manual for interacting with all of his written work. Within it, Atkins describes an everlasting tension between the senses and language, creating linguistic situations that are more difficult to pronounce than to feel, breaking down legibility. “Air for Concrete” explicitly describes the effect of his writing’s characteristic excess, despite its relative succinctness. Often times, his texts move too quickly to breathe through, the speaker’s computational power outstanding that of the reader. Unexpected conjunctions and articles such as or, and, whereas, and an, situate us within lists of indeterminate length or breadth, each thought linguistically oozing into the next. Atkins is aware of this deluge: “Swallowing words like snot, amassed on that bridge between your gagging throat and your nose. You’re filling up on that stuff. Careful, it has no traditional nutritional value.” Just as words become snot and snot becomes smoke, his playing is of no conventional use. Yet the material disintegration reveals something more fundamental to the use of words, as if they are themselves a cover, a skin that is as malleable as it is manipulative. “They materialize through your body,” Atkins explains. In consuming the barrage of information, the reader finds themselves consumed. The ingestion of his texts is an explicitly ouroboric activity.
The mental exercise of reading the texts reintroduces the vaporous capacity of language that Atkins seems so concerned with. The reader becomes a conduit for text, our own porosity enabling the shape shifting tone, style, and image to perform the acrobatics of the text, yet is ultimately obfuscated within the tantalizing visuals of his videos. While his videos propose a symbiotic relation between text and image, the urgent breath of language comes through most in the solitary act of reading his words to oneself. A Primer for Cadavers pushes the limits of literature by vivisecting the medium. The book reads as an awake craniotomy, in which Atkins, poking at the different components of writing and reading, forces them to perform acts disparate to their conventional operation.
BRIANNA LEATHERBURY is an interdisciplinary artist and writer based in Brooklyn.