BRIGHTON, U.K. — It was 1624 when the poet John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Nearly 400 years later he would have blown a gasket to see the way we use mobile phones and social networks. And were he to have seen a new show at Nottingham Contemporary, he might have been moved to add, “And no object either.” Artist-curator Mark Leckey has put together a range of art and artifacts with a wealth of connections to ourselves and each other. If Donne wrote his most famous line at a time of sickness, these days he might have jotted it down in a blog and been led to reflect that the web looks set to outlast us all.
Leckey has delved into the past and peered into the future to aggregate his objects in an animistic cavalcade which he breaks down into six main themes: cars, animals, the body, machines, virtual space and monsters. Perhaps the oldest item on display is an ancient Hapi Canopic jar, which once stored the innards of an Egyptian mummy. This now sits in offering to a 10m high inflatable of Felix the Cat. More recent items include a bionic hand (which sits alongside a 13th century hand reliquary) and a clay concept car from Nissan (set off by some crystal encrusted engines by artist Roger Hiorns).
Cabinets of curiosity or Wunderkammers may be in vogue, but this touring show in the UK goes well beyond the bounds of good taste. Rather than placement on dusty shelves, Leckey presents many of his found objects in green, blue, and red chroma key bays, such as you might find in a film studio for the fantastical transport of a person or thing being filmed. His space given over to cars, with its long glass window, is reminiscent of a showroom. His animals are presented with a backing of storybook scenery, while his monsters are in a darkened room which the artist has said he wanted to feel like a rave.
Some of this will be familiar to those who follow the Turner Prize-winning artist. His first ever piece, the 1999 video “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore,” explored the history of dance music and youth culture in the UK, which culminated in the late 80s rave scene. And indeed, the bay given over to machines includes both a speaker stack ‘statue’ and a Wurltizer drum machine from 1965, conspicuous in its analog bulk.
Felix the Cat has also cropped up in the artist’s work before now. A model of this cartoon character, better known in two dimensions, was in fact the first image broadcast on American TV. Leckey has said he enjoys this example of transubstantiation; and children of all ages should enjoy the billowing model in Nottingham. Interestingly, this cost just £1,500 to knock up in a workshop in China.
Chroma key technology is another well-known Leckey trope. The best example is a piece he showed in 2010 at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York, “GreenScreenRefridgeratorAction.” This installation featured a Samsung smartfridge as dark as its painted surrounds were bright. Two plasma screens played an accompanying film which showed the black monolith dreaming and travelling the world. Such is the power of greenscreen.
Back in Nottingham, the rave-inspired dark room is a highlight of the show. Renderings of a giant, a headless man, a mandrake, and an autist’s self portrait glow from the walls. In the midst of it all, the rough hewn bust of a minotaur awaits (a contemporary piece by Nicola Hicks). And at the far end is an enlargement of the image Leckey claims as the most frightening of all, the Ghost of a Flea by William Blake. If you weren’t already worried about these creatures, the garbled vocals and eerie screeching of a three-channel sound piece by Florian Hecker threaten to consume you.
But the artist has surely been consumed already. Like many of us, he has been consumed by new media. When asked for the source of his wide range of material, Leckey responded with one word: “Google.” This show has emerged from 1001 image searches, bulging folders on a computer desktop, and a now dormant Tumblr blog which — over the two year lead-up to his current show — allowed him to index his findings. The exhibition might be described as a three-dimensional Tumblr blog.
This bias towards the internet might explain the plethora of cats here. Felix has a giant tub of Felix-brand cat food. And there are several more felines on display. US artist Elad Lassry is represented with a stern looking photo of a Devon Rex. It cries out for an Impact font headline to compound its meme-like appearance. Nearby another portrait shows a poor moggy dissolving into psychedelic fractals; it lends evidence to the suggestion that artist Louis Wain was schizophrenic. Even stranger, a wooden mannequin of a cat turns out to be a 1940 machine for demonstrating reflexes.
Between the art and the science, the scope of this show is vast. As curator, one might imagine that the Liverpudlian artist has chosen these 200 objects, but as a believer in systems and dare-one-say animism, Leckey would probably admit that he in turn was chosen by his exhibits. The title of his 2011 show at Serpentine, See, We Assemble, suggested that the artworks themselves had curated it.
Perhaps this is the only honest position a curator or an artist can take. Objects do cry out to become subjects. And these objects have made such a claim on Leckey that he is scanning them all in 3D and “flat-packing” them into a new piece of film, which he says will allow him to possess these wondrous finds. It is also, perhaps, a way to neutralise their power and return them to the virtual fifth domain from whence they came. No man is an island, but visitors to this show can expect to find themselves under siege.
The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things can be seen at Nottingham Contemporary (Weekday Cross, Nottingham, UK) through June 30. It then travels to the De La Warr Pavilion (Marina, Bexhill on Sea, UK) from July 13 to October 20.
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