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Happy Birthday!! (video still) - Ed Atkins
Ed Atkins, Happy Birthday!! (video still), 2014. HD video projection. Courtesy of Ed Atkins and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Ed Atkins’s Liquid Modernity

  • Article
  • PHI Foundation
By  Daniel Fiset

Context: Liquid

To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. [...] [Modernity] is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity: it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘‘all that is solid melts into air.’’

Marshall Berman

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, 1983

In a book published in the early 2000s [1], Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman proposes an alternative reading of modernity, a period in which we still find ourselves. This modernity is marked by metaphors of fluidity and liquidity. Contrary to solids, fluids can easily change form, as per the low cohesive force of molecules constituting them. Due to its own nature, liquid is called upon to move, to transform, to spread out. While we can describe solids according to their pure materiality, describing fluids is an exercise in describing time or a slippage. There is no complete or total image of a liquid: each representation is a glimpse, a snapshot. [2]

Berman was inspired by a famous phrase from Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party: “All that is solid melts into air”. In this classic text, the figure of liquidity expresses the force with which capitalism liquidated traces of pre-modern societies to establish itself as a modern condition. This liquidation described by Marx and Engels, notes Bauman, implicates a “smashing of the protective armour forged of the beliefs and loyalties which allowed the solids to resist.” [3] Yet, if a liquidation of history through modern capitalist economics is possible, there is also hope for another force of liquid transformation to arise, bringing an end to modern disparities. It is this revolutionary force that Marx and Engels try to mobilize in their manifesto.

The image of fluidity is often evoked when trying to describe yet another major cultural transformation: the passage from analog to digital in contemporary societies. Flux serves as a figure to describe the speed with which information transits, the moving and uninterrupted character of digital context, now produced by all. This liquid state conditions a particular experience of time and space that we can observe in Ed Atkins’s oeuvre. His preferred mediums – performed text, video, motion capture, and CGI animation – all appear to be moving, fluctuating, transformed and transformative, resistant.

It is not trivial that liquid is such an important part of Atkins’s formal and thematic vocabulary. In certain moments, the representation of liquids in his work recalls the elementary functions of the human body. Remark the traits of urine and blood strewn across the screen in Ribbons while a man constantly serves himself glasses of scotch, dripping a little more alcohol upon the table each time. The same bodily fluids are poured into plastic bins in Safe Conduct. It is from liquid that some of Atkins’s protagonists emerge. Consider the body of water on which the moon is reflected, water from which the head of one of Happy Birthday!!’s characters arises. Droplets of sweat pearl on the forehead of that same character character—or could they be drops of water? Liquid allows us to consider questions of equivalence and simultaneity, as if everything swam in the same water.

Where do you note the presence of liquid in other works by Atkins? How are these images in dialogue?

Do you agree or disagree with Berman’s quote at the start of this text? How would you qualify your experience of modern life?


[1] BAUMAN, Zygmunt (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Op.cit., p.3.


Ed Atkins: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Ed Atkins: Modern Piano Music. These concepts are liquid, melancholia, text, and body/violence.

Author: Daniel Fiset

Daniel Fiset is a cultural worker based in Tiohtiá:ke/Mooniyang/Montreal. Holding a Ph.D. in art history from Université de Montréal, he has collaborated with numerous Quebec and Canadian institutions in the field of visual arts, including OPTICA, esse arts + opinions and the Musée d'art contemporain des Laurentides. He is currently the adjunct curator for engagement at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, and curated the 2021 PHI MONTRÉAL exhibition.


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