Performance Anxiety Mark Leckeys Little Theatre of Gestures


Art Basel’s closing two days, billed as Art Basel Weekend, was a rush of events — screenings, panels, and parties — sporadically attended by a somewhat diminished crowd. With most of the international journalists and collectors gone, the artists, gallerists, and locals still have many choice offerings left. Perhaps none were so anticipated or overwhelmingly attended as Mark Leckey’s lecture-cum-performance at the Kunstmuseum Basel on Saturday evening.

A reprise of a performance the Turner prize-winning artist gave in London last winter, The Long Tail (2009) was ostensibly based on a frequency distribution model often applied to internet businesses; Leckey extrapolated its meaning to encompass the larger world order of artistic production and information sharing. A lectern, hushed lights, a projection screen, and a blackboard and piece of white chalk leant to the presentation’s distinctly academic aesthetic. Nevertheless (this being Leckey) the projected material included some of the English artist’s regular, much stranger interests: found footage of stuffed or animated animals, for instance, or stereo equipment bubbling over with fluorescent green slime. At times, Leckey’s microphone began looping his voice, and the artist’s pronouncements would rise, stuttering like a shaman — or the Wizard of Oz.

It was at these moments that the sheer weirdness of Leckey’s project revealed itself — and when the performance was most pleasurable. His subject matter, likely taken from Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, a 2006 book regarded with the same ardour as Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point by the advertising and business industries, was decidedly less intriguing. There is something distinctly “1990s” about comparing artistic production — or almost anything else — to the workings of the Internet (Everything’s a web!). Accordingly, Leckey’s treatise often felt more retro than revelatory. But the artist’s endearing inventiveness, and his amazing projected footage, not to mention the moment when a smash-up of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass began to echo deliriously through the hall, won me-and the tired if enthusiastic packed crowd-over in the end.

In an interview in the Guardian last year, Leckey spoke about growing up outside Liverpool and his teenage fashion choice to become a “casual” – something like a greaser who decides to dress like a soc, in S.E. Hinton-inflected, middle-American parlance. Or as he said: “It was a working-class style, a genuine subculture. It was lads who adopted middle-class leisurewear — golf wear, sportswear — that you could see in magazines worn by the jet set.” He described it as a kind of “drag, a disguise. A means of using style to transform yourself.” I was reminded of this statement when I visited Little Theatre of Gestures, a deft and surprising group show on view at Basel’s , just down the road from where Leckey delivered his lecture. With a wonderful cast of acclaimed international artists — Kutlug Ataman, Susanne M. Winterling, and Jay Chung & Q Takeki Maeda among them — the exhibition concerns itself with the intimate performances we make of ourselves, and our subtly shape-shifting identities, each day.

As one moved around a Basel this past week, the distinctive poster for Little Theatre of Gestures was to be seen everywhere: a dapper man, chin in hand, turning his head ever so confidently in our direction. The handsome man is the grandfather of one of the exhibition’s artists, Iñaki Bonillas, and the subject of his outstanding contribution to the show. After Bonillas’s grandfather died, the young Mexico City artist found a trove of photographs that he had taken of himself while briefly working as a cowboy in Wyoming, and then later in various professions in Mexico. To frame his grandfather’s performances of myriad identities — ranch hand, businessman, artist — Bonillas arranged grids of the images on the Museum für Gegenwartskunst’s walls, where their sweet strangeness was lit anew by his decision to show the images’ negatives in light boxes. His grandfather’s typewritten journal during his time in Wyoming accompanies the piece, detailing the daily pratfalls of his mostly unsuccessful performance. (The artist later told me, laughing, “It was the worst period of his life!)

Another work, Kutlug Ataman’s deeply affecting video installation, Women Who Wear Wigs (1999), explored a more singular performative gesture. The women whom he interviews each have different reasons for wearing their wigs (cancer, religion). By describing the act, and the issues that inspire it, a series of momentous and mesmerizing personal histories are acted out for us. But not all the exhibition’s gestures were so serious: The reliably good humored artist Kirsten Pieroth exhibited a sculpture in which a rubber raft becomes inflated as she plays an accordion to which it is linked by a long tube. The artist, who in the past has “relocated” puddles and switched the texts in Braille books, alters objects just a bit, so that they end up wittily (and sometimes sadly) performing their own displacement.

The playful seriousness of Little Theatre of Gestures, sharply curated by Nikola Dietrich from the Museum für Gegenwartskunst’s and Jacob Fabricius, director of the Malmö Konsthall, made an engaging bridge to Mark Leckey’s own performance. And both events could also be seen, in a certain light, as a comment on the fair atmosphere of Basel itself, with its multitude of performances (of wealth, taste, power, coolness) and poses being played out by us and among us. For if Art Basel was not a little theatre of gestures, what was it exactly?


[Iñaki Bonillas, A sombra e o brilho, 2007; Kutlug Ataman, Women Who Wear Wigs, 1999; all images courtesy the Kunstmuseum Basel]