BLACKPOOL, UK — While obsessed with Felix the Cat, Mark Leckey has his own highly sensitive pair of whiskers. These twitch like fury at the fluctuating popularity of shared imagery and behavior patterns of the hive mind. This Kolossal Kat, that Massive MOG, on display at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool, is a survey of the artist’s interest in Felix the Cat, and our common interest in all cats, given that the species is one of the most popular memes. This is even truer in 2016 than it was when Leckey, to the consternation of many, won the Turner Prize in 2008.
The artist’s win came just 80 years after the first-ever broadcast image: a 3D model of Felix, chosen by NBC. Leckey restaged the pioneering event in his studio, together with lights, a camera, and a flickering daisy wheel. His archaic equipment from “Felix Gets Broadcasted” (2007) is on show here, and the effect is museological rather than visually striking.
But there’s an elephant in the room, or rather a 33ft-tall inflatable Felix that cannot be ignored. This lightweight monument was first made for a show curated by the artist at Nottingham Contemporary about the slippage between our physical world and the realm of technology. If cats have greater currency and indeed some measure of immortality from their proliferation via the World Wide Web, here in Blackpool the curator is exploring what happens when the pets make their way back to an IRL context.
“Inflatable Felix” (2014), who needs to curl up to fit into the Edwardian gallery space, sets a buoyant tone. Felix, after all, is Latin for “happy.” We are a stone’s throw from Blackpool’s famous Pleasure Beach. And Felix proves a cheerful obsession, whether inflated to fill a large room, or broken into black-and-white dots for broadcast, or even reduced to geometric planes to build a head-shaped screening room (“FEELINTHECAT,” 2008). In this seaside context, the artist comes across like a funfair barker.
In “Flix,” a 16mm animation, a serpentine black tail flickers against a white background, dancing to the right and left. The tail exhibits a mind of its own and, like the inflatable, it has all the elements of a cartoon and retains the mute charm which characterized the Felix of early film. Elsewhere in the exhibition the most expressive tail in pop culture appears in the form of an inflatable seat, resting before a television screening Leckey’s 2008–09 performative lecture, “In the Long Tail.” As he explains, for those unaware, “the long tail” is a term for the lingering presence of obscure cultural content, which in the virtual realm can compete with the blockbuster film, the hit record, or the bestselling book. The artist mixes pedagogy with allusion, image with argument, to celebrate the energies of this leveled playing field of the internet. The film builds to a blackout, an incantation, and a projection of NBC’s inaugural “picture on air” as Leckey names Felix the “avatar of the tail” and spells out his nine “consciousnesses” rather than nine lives. It gets quite zealous at times and, one suspects, “In the Long Tail” makes for a better sermon than it does an academic text. But for all its lack of footnotes and lightly worn learning, it is exhilarating viewing.
Leckey’s arguments are as porous as his visual vocabulary and just as slippery. But nowhere here do we find work more push-me-pull-me than in the new commission “FEELINTHECAT.” Its geodesic dome, made of engineered cardboard, invites and repels (to get inside you will need to duck). But once in you find two vertically oriented plasma screens that show the convulsions of a humanoid CGI cat who briefly appears to share Leckey’s hairdo and beard. This is the merest glimmer that, even more than in the rest of the show, “FEELINTHECAT” is a piece of self-portraiture.
Leckey’s transformation here into a cat, which may or may not be Felix, evokes Jekyll and Hyde, with some of the bodily violence of a Francis Bacon painting. To be more contemporary about this piece, it also alludes to the internet-fueled crazes for cosplay and so-called furry fandom. The film installation is as funny as it is strange. It is both daft and disturbing. But a soundtrack which would not be out of place in a classic arcade platform game sets a playful tone which should put your mind at rest, even as the artist’s catlike form bristles, liquefies on the floor, and then evaporates altogether. Such are the dangers of loving cats too much!
Mark Leckey: This Kolossal Kat, that Massive MOG continues at Grundy Art Gallery (Queen St, Blackpool FY1 1PU, UK) through August 13.