Mark Leckey – Lending Enchantment
to Vulgar Materials
Wiels Contemporary Art Center,
26.09.14 – 11.01.15
Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
The immediacy that was once harboured in artworks will have its aura rubbed away, layer by layer, by industrial production. Today, this 19th-century prophecy has already become history. With new methods of artistic production and modes of exhibition, the artwork itself is now encompassed by the category of the exhibition. It is also difficult to restore a piece by ‘reproducing’ it. Does this mean, then, that such methods of presentation, which emphasise the site of the exhibition, evade the fading of this aura of enchantment? The situation is perhaps less than optimistic. Currently the greatest enemy is no longer the reproduction of images but the spread of information; a short video clip or a few paragraphs of descriptive text posted online are all it takes to dispel the aura. In such a context, any attempt to resist industrial society with a particular form of art is all but futile. Yet suppose, from another perspective, instead of simply and bluntly approaching the matter head on, what happens if we accept vulgarity as a reality of art – a reality brought about by dissemination and replication? In other words, what will we find, when we plunge into the depths of the Information Age?
Since the ’90s, Mark Leckey’s practice has been founded on iconography and popular culture, exploring the emotional paradigms generated by such cultures. The exhibition title, Lending Enchantment to Vulgar Materials, draws its name from the work of the pioneering Surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Leckey found he had similar emotions to those of the poet; they both had related interests in vulgar and modern objects. The artist began almost fetishistically collecting such objects, whether they had form or were formless, whether precious or ‘vulgar’. These objects also presented their hidden contexts: desire, imagination, identity, and memory. The entire first floor of the exhibition space was dedicated to UniAddDumThs, the new work Leckey created for this exhibition. The piece is a recreation of an exhibition the artist recently curated,entitled ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’. This exhibition brought together different objects from different places. The logic of the collection is like an Internet search: sometimes a search with the same keywords might turn up diametrically opposite results, and yet it is undeniable that the objects are interrelated on some level. Such a system – utterly absurd and yet eminently reasonable – itself constitutes Leckey’s structure of artistic language.
Animism is a further important means by which to understand the artist’s work. As smart technology permeates everyday life, our inhabited environment becomes ever more subject to control. In the end, all objects will become responsive to external changes, and humanity will return to a primal animistic environment, in a completely novel way. While all of these smart systems are based on seemingly lifeless segments of data and code, they do truly possess life and vitality. At the same time, Leckey’s work also reflects another, parallel, kind of animism – a more spiritual experience, like the feeling of looking at the relics of a deceased family member, or viewing a masterpiece. The artist is interested in constructing a personal narrative and then permeating an object with the emotions it contains. In other words, when we look at these objects, we are in fact looking at their entire context. This point is clearer in a consumerist society – people senselessly purchase certain products repeatedly and generate with this repetition a totemic, fanatical attachment to a brand. This is how animism presents itself in a consumerist context. As a result, like ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’, we end up living our lives surrounded by objects that speak.
UniAddDumThs has three parts: animal, human, and mechanical. At WIELS, a prison-like concrete space has been arranged to resemble a scene of witchcraft. The artist has rearranged seemingly familiar faces in profoundly disturbing ways. In the installation are bird calls, sounds of machines running and a series of psychedelic noises which seem to have emanated from the universe. The ‘animal’ background in the first part of the piece is made up of a landscape painting by the artist, Seth Eastman, which once again demonstrates Leckey’s grasp of the vulgar. Most of Eastman’s works depict the customs and practices of Native Americans; his works inhabit that grey area between genre painting and art. As a complement to this, Lecky has also installed a reproduction of Max Ernst’s painting The Elephant Celebes, in front of Eastman’s painting of a forest. Of course, both of these are crude prints from an industrialised society. The second part of the installation – ‘human’ – resembles a sacrificial tableau: a copy of a model of William Blake’s head, models of wombs and heads of Cyberman from British television, as well as other fleshy or mechanical parts, are offered up as a sacrifice, much like a holy grail. With Henry Moore as the backdrop, all of these objects lose their individual contexts and become props for an atavistic ritual. The third part of the installation, ‘machine’, imparts a highly commodified air – objects, including Richard Hamilton’s readymades, an old metronome and toy models, among other things, have been arranged on an Amazon online shipping box. The presence of these three parts at the exhibition, combined with the sounds in the room, transforms the space into a séance, where the spirits of these inanimate objects are summoned up. Moving on from the parts with animals and humans, the crux of this installation is the mechanical portion set up to the right, which comes alive alongside the organic animal and human components. This leads us to glance at a reality we dare not accept – the age of mechanical reproduction has not brought about the disappearance of the aura, but its omnipresence. The second-floor exhibition room is steeped in a warm yellow halo, in which the artist has constructed a scientific and technological landscape, using crude industrial products; these objects tower over the exhibition space like monuments, and sporadically emit low rumbling noises. The strange lights and noises in the space make it impossible for anyone to remain in the room for an extended period of time; this discomfort seems to presage the fears brought about by the era of technological animism, which may yet come to pass.
Leckey works in systematic complexity, which also happens to be the same complexity that exists in a mediatic society. Underneath the artist’s surface absurdity and mockery, he gravely and incisively denotes the underlying symptoms in our habits of information exchange to which we have become accustomed. The inevitability of this foretold era, and our helplessness to prevent it, makes the situation all the more desperate. The only thing possible is to maintain our individual self-reflexivity. This is also where the responsibility of art, as a form of social action, lies: it is no longer a source of comfort for large groups of people; rather, it has become a distinctive connection between each and every individual and the environment they find themselves in.
从90年代开始，马克·莱基的实践就一直基于图像学与流行文化，并探寻这种文化所生产的情感范式。‘庸俗物质的诱惑’这一展览题目来自于超现实主义先驱阿波丽奈尔，莱基发现自己有着与之相似的情绪，都是对一些庸俗而富有现代性之物产生了兴趣。艺术家如恋物癖一般收集了这些物品，它们有形或无形，或珍贵或‘庸俗’，而这些物品也同时呈现了它们背后所指向的上下文关系：欲望、想象、身份与记忆。展厅第一层是莱基为这次展览全新创作的作品《UniAddDunThs》。这是基于艺术家在近几年策划的一次展览《The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things》无言事物的普遍可言性 ）的一次再创作，这次展览在当时汇集了来自不同地域的各式各样的物品。收集物品的逻辑就像网络搜索，有时候搜索同样一个词条却能出现南辕北辙的结果，但又不得不承认这些事物在某种程度上是相互联系的。这种荒诞不经却又合情合理的系统也是莱基艺术语言的结构本身。