The recent midcareer survey of Mark Leckey’s work at MoMA PS1 was, by turns, humorous and thought-provoking, wistful and disturbing. Only sometimes did the prodigious array of hundreds of videos, films, sculptures, audio installations, and appropriated art objects offer much in the way of warmth or connection. Often, as Leckey rifles through the symbols and images of life immersed in pop culture, the work lapses into an obscure didacticism.
The exhibition’s title, “Containers and Their Drivers,” reminded me of Walter Benjamin’s description of a souvenir as a container of the “deceased experience,” into which “the increasing self-alienation of the person who inventories his past as dead possession is distilled.” Leckey’s dense, meticulous, dioramalike rooms and arrangements resembled at times the elaborate curio displays of obsessive fans. Many of the art objects were his own (collages, posters, inflatable renditions of Felix the Cat); many were borrowed from other artists, including Ed Atkins, Emma Hart, and Alex Hubbard. There were also copies of other artists’ works made by Leckey; these included photographs of photographs and replicas, in mediums like cardboard and 3D-printed polymer, of sculptures by Robert Gober, Louise Bourgeois, Max Ernst, and Henry Moore. If art can be viewed partly as a collaborative encounter between maker and observer––a form, ultimately, of collective ownership––then Leckey’s exhibition suggested that an art object can be forced to become a kind of souvenir.
Leckey’s work often draws from the street and club cultures of his youth in North England. In one large gallery stood Untitled (Bridge), 2016, a full-scale re-creation of the space beneath a concrete overpass (where illicit teenage memories are often made), complete with pylons, an embankment, and the underside of the road overhead. The gallery was bathed in hazy yellow light, and included works by Leckey such as Leckey Legs (2014), a 3D print of the artist’s bottom half wearing what look like club-hopping pants, and Pylon/Transmission Tower #1 (2013), an expressionistic, cardboard version of its titular subject, outfitted with a sound-making device. Placed nearby were thematically linked works by other artists, like Becky Howland’s metallic Transmission Tower #1 (1986). One thinks again of Benjamin, and his argument that an art object loses its original “aura,” or “its presence in time and space,” when it is copied. The same must be said of youth.
At its best and most direct, Leckey’s work communicates something significant about the difficulties of clear, lasting, and authentic self-expression. In films like Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) and Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD (2015), snippets of urban decay and the iconography of youth culture are edited into hypnotic mash-ups. The hedonism and energy are as terrifying and ephemeral as they are beautiful. In the darkly funny GreenScreenRefrigerator (2010-16), we hear a voice yearning for fulfillment, lamenting the emptiness, the chill. But the voice comes from a “smart” refrigerator, describing its condition in a tone both mournful and robotic.
At its least accessible, the meaning in Leckey’s work seems to exist somewhere amid the wall texts and the free-associations that arise from shared conceits. Pairing Felix the Cat with ideas about long-tail economic theory, as he does on several occasions, seems to offer little more than a pun on the cartoon character’s tail and the history of broadcast imagery. If there’s a deeper message, it requires the viewer to search for it.
Leckey might insist that this disconnect––between searching and finding––is partly the point. He has long fought against perceptions of stiltedness and inaccessibility in his art, complaining to the Guardian, after winning the Turner prize in 2008, that critics who say his work is remote “are middle brow and they want stuff that looks like art, and maybe my stuff doesn’t look like art.” (To wit, the exhibition included Guardian.co.uk Painting 1, 2011, a painting by Michael Krebber depicting a negative review by Jonathan Jones that was headlined: “Mark Leckey’s Art Creates Noise Without Meaning.”) And yet, in a recent New York Times interview, Leckey derided the art school notion of “being asked to understand Derrida, just because you can draw,” declaring that it leads to bad art. He seems to want it both ways. Sooner or later, one longs for something declarative.
In the first room of Mark Leckey’s exhibition at the Hammer Museum hangs a small poster that could easily be overlooked in favor of the videos, scintillating grids, LED screens and cardboard sculptures that glow, flicker and sing for our attention. Titled Circa ’87 (2013), the image is a goofy guide of sorts to the more complex underpinnings of this new body of work. In it, Leckey is seated at a snare drum, sticks at the ready, wearing nothing but white shorts and a boyish grin while captivating a circle of beautiful women gathered together in a hair salon. He takes great pleasure in this audience, even though their enrapt attention has absolutely nothing to do with him. It’s clear from first glance that the artist Photoshopped himself into a found image (from around 1987, one presumes); the model/actresses, even in the moment the photo was taken, were only ever performing desire for the camera. Leckey’s puckish delight with his place among the beauties testifies to the fact that although these women cannot in fact admire him back, they can still fulfill his fantasy—at least on paper.
The 13 works in the exhibition, “On Pleasure Bent,” are largely propelled by the British artist’s long-standing practice of aggregation and assembly, of search and deploy—stringing found materials along new threads, uncovering the life forces of images, footage and objects to blur the boundaries of memory and reverie, artifact and fiction. The titular minute-long video is a teaser for Leckey’s moving-image memoir of the same name (scheduled for completion next year). The memoir consists of what he calls “found memories,” media that he believes formed him, shaped his desires and his sense of pleasure, and perhaps, too, his art. Scenes from a strip tease, a close-up of fishnet stockings, shots of transmission towers, a Kate Bush performance and other archival materials are dreamily edited together over a languid score. In a telling sequence, we watch a dolly shot down a grand hallway. A silhouetted figure steps into the frame and walks toward a brightly lit gallery at the end of the hall. Suddenly, the light changes, our eyes refocus, and the scene proves to be but a trick: a process shot filmed in the studio, with Leckey walking toward projected footage as though in search of a way into the images.
The teaser/trailer also features some of the LED screens and scintillating grids (custom-made lightboxes with photos) hanging in the show, their presence extending Leckey’s found-memory memoir into the gallery. Potent and otherworldly, these light-emitting works move past mere techno-dazzle to transform their appropriations into apparitions. The LED screens each feature brief, looping animations in which the subject appears to hover at an eerie distance somewhere between the screen and the wall: Transfigured (2012) reanimates the legendary Hibiscus, founder of the ’60s-era psychedelic theater troupe The Cockettes; in Transiting (2013), we watch clouds passing through a shaky shot of the moon. Leckey’s grids are odder objects based on an optical illusion in which a grid of lights fools the eye into believing it’s seeing spots. Techgnosis (2013) presents an illustrated image of an animal’s eye that the artist has ripped along the white to reveal a pattern of small red, green and blue lights beneath it. In these works, vision is the subject, the object and the experience all at once.
An author’s fate is often the final punctuation mark of a memoir—”what became of…?” Inside the exhibition’s chronological collapse of cultural history, personal narrative and Leckey’s present productions, the video Pearl Vision (2012) stands as another self-portrait of sorts, a glimmer of Leckey “now.” Here, the chrome snare drum from Circa ’87 takes center stage, a gleaming, near-perfect object onto which Leckey beats simple rhythms. We see Leckey reflected in the surface of the drum, at one moment wearing red trousers, at another wearing nothing at all. Through animation, the object also becomes an avatar; additional CG trickery makes it appear to pulse and breathe. Its metamorphoses are the achievements of our era—the hybridization of things and images dispossessed of their traditional boundaries by the digital world. Far from dystopian, Leckey’s vision is one of pure pleasure; or, as we read in a close-up of the drum’s label, NEXT LEVEL PERFECTION.