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Herb Sundays 48: Mark Leckey
The shapeshifting UK contemporary artist shares a beguiling mix. Art by Cina.
Mark Leckey is a UK contemporary artist (a second Turner Prize winner in these pages after Jeremy Deller, Herb 36) in the tradition of artists like Mike Kelley, moving from medium to medium with ease, searching for another way to rid himself of (or delve back into) his memories and ideas. He’s also a music person, helming a regular NTS radio show, working with artists like Lung Dart, and releasing audio components of his work on labels like The Death Of Rave, Warp, and Boomkat Editions. This is why I’ve been insistent on him being a part of the Herb catalogue.
The poetry of his work is dealing with how technology changes humanity, and how that changes our memories in the process. "Technology replays your memories; it stores and records and replays, which induces this continual sense of nostalgia. Part of the present is to be in the past. That’s our environment, I guess.”
I first encountered Leckey's work in the wild at MOMA PS1 in 2016 at his show: Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers which sits in my mind with a fractured and warped sense of largesse. The show featured a deflated Fritz The Cat parade-style balloon too big for the room, a refrigerator that murmurs like a space-damaged version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL 9000, and an array of beautiful speaker stacks (see below), amongst many other things. They are all fragments of Leckey's mind and memories that make up a post-industrial universe.
Leckey’s breakthrough film Fiorucci made me Hardcore (1999) loosely follows Britain’s underground club scene from the 1970s (Northern Soul) to the Casuals movement, to the late 80s (Rave). The Tate site says “using a compilation of found footage, Fiorucci came about long before the mash-up culture of YouTube and is a super-cut of shared and personal memory.” Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD is another video piece that draws on archival material from television shows, advertisements, and concert footage. In doing so, it creates a record of all the major events in the artist’s life from the 1970s through the 1990s, bridging personal and cultural.”
Fiorucci (a nod to the 80’s peak Italian brand favored by some dancers in the doc) is prescient in its melancholy mood. It is nostalgic and scary even, especially since emerging before the image-dense landscape of Instagram and the rest. The soundtrack (made crudely on the Fruity Loops software of the time) is divorced from its source material, so it’s not a pumping music piece, it’s fractured and “hauntological” as they like to say. Herb Sundays 32 delegate, Simon Reynolds, nails it precisely:
“You sometimes think: this should really never have been filmed, these moments should really never have been captured, these are secrets that should really never have been shown. Because all this really happened. This is how some young people actually spent their time, this is the thing to which they devoted all their energy and money and passion and life-force…What you are witnessing--what Mark Leckey is re-presenting here almost without comment-- is a collection of what may have been the best moments from a number of young British lives in the last three decades of the 20th Century. Their finest hour.”
In a contemporary lens, the work of Adam Curtis comes to mind here, using historical footage in almost an un-documentary-like way, that is inherently weird or eerie to achieve a perhaps deeper truth. It’s all to perhaps say that it is indeed technology (the artifacts of the pre-digital world especially) that shapes our perception and the subjectivity of memory. Leckey’s best work sits on the edge of sentimental and maudlin. It is a reminder that youth is a mirage. You can't ever experience it again and you can't really experience it when it's happening. That's why it's so powerful.
The mix here is equally elusive but no less emotive. Leckey is on record saying Acen's 1992 rave classic "Trip 2 The Moon (part 2)" as his fave song of all time. The mix follows a dream logic of club cuts (Todd Edwards, RP Boo) and experimental art-pop, old and new (Klein, Roxy Music), closing with a remarkably humid Keith Sweat cut and a song from the Hair soundtrack.
“Most of it has come from the show I do on NTS which I'm now calling an 'Abundance Dump'. I like a lot of the psychedelic stuff that's come out of Trap and Auto-tune madness, and I've found I can match that with other fertile experimental periods like the early Seventies and the Post-Punk era. Most of the playlist are songs that have influenced me, or rather they have some quality that I want to replicate or allude to in some way. A couple of tracks are there just for sentimental reasons and I think they're just wonderful songs.”
Somewhere They Can’t Find Me
For his 2020 show/performances O' Magic Power of Bleakness, Leckey took this memory rebuilding even further. The Tate site explains: “Leckey transforms Tate Britain’s galleries with a life-size replica of a motorway bridge on the M53 on the Wirral, Merseyside, where the artist grew up. The bridge – a recurring motif in his work – is the setting for a new audio play. Focusing on a group of teenagers, the play is inspired by folklore and stories of changelings by the artist’s own pre-adolescent experiences.”
The bridge in question is a lot of things perhaps: Another gambit in memory recreation, a childlike desire to make stuff one thinks is cool (Leckey has copped to this impulse before), or another exorcism in total, just like the videos.
Another angle, for me, is the idea that there's something freeing about being under the bridge, or returning to the past, as a surrender or hiding. As technology tracks us (phones, cookies, CCTV), we've become unfree perhaps, and with social media as a stock ticker on our daily worth, being under the bridge is a place where we can be free from ourselves and the accompanied self-critique, not dissimilar to Fiorucci’s dancers (see memes: “not a phone in sight”).
Another prescient Brit (see: climate change, wealth disparity, everything), author J.G. Ballard knew that these “non-places” or what the kids call “liminal spaces” now were the vanguard (choosing to live somewhat on the outskirts of London, Shepperton, or the layer where industry actually meets society), maybe the same way art critic Dave Hickey chose to live in Vegas. The inauthentic is somehow more true to our age than a perceived or fake naturalness.
Ballard's beloved car parks and The Westway motorway flyover in West London- ‘a stone dream that will never awake’ is the location of his 1974 book Concrete Island (I haven't read it) about an architect marooned on a motorway traffic island. A man falls into a space of the city that cannot be seen by passersby civilians and drivers, and a Robinson Crusoe adventure continues. What a dream.
Bridges and motorways are the Ballardian remnants of industry. The underpasses of yore, where people congregate, the abandoned factory, etc are places of "misuse" for congregating (raving, living) illegally. Bridges loom large in music culture for this reason perhaps: The Chili Peppers obvs, the iron bridge in The Smith’s "Still Ill" and Nirvana's "Something In The Way" which supposedly acts as an autofiction diary of dwelling under an Aberdeen Bridge. Bridges are places of meaning because they are secluded and also carry the scars of industry and the marks of their visitors with graffiti and refuse.
There's a bridge in my mind I hope to find again. I believe it's an early '80s Martha Cooper or Henry Chalfant photo (or a composite of multiple in my mind) of 2 off-duty graffiti artists on a summer's day entering the darkness of a wide NYC underpass. When I think of this image (or create it in my mind) it fills me with a deep calm. It probably is the confluence of a few things: the heat and relief from the heat on a hot day, an image of a lost place or a city you could spelunk in somewhat freely, and the idea of being untethered, or that without phones, no one knows where these people are.