Mark Leckey: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things

This review of ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ appeared in Dutch translation in Metropolis M

With an eclectic mix of handpicked objects spread across most available gallery spaces at Nottingham Contemporary, in the latest round of artist-curated Hayward touring exhibitions, Mark Leckey has created a Wunderkammer fit for the digital age, one in which the physical and virtual realms converge. A cabinet of wonders that by and large steers clear of the academic pretensions and preciosity of some modern-day curiosi. The artist insists that he did not wish to make a show that would put his own taste on display in selecting the artworks and artists that he did. (Not all of the objects included in the exhibition are artworks, in fact, just as not all are the work of artists.) And yet he is the first to admit that some of the objects on view are in poor taste or at least not to everyone’s taste.

There is something rather boysy, playfully so, to a lot of the selected works, from the car-themed room at the start of the exhibition, the predilection for toys and gadgets of one kind or another (the inflated effigy of Felix the Cat that dominates one gallery space or the computer-generated, virtual image of Jeff Koons’ bunny sculpture featured in Leckey’s 2004 video Made in ‘Eaven) to the way that sexual attributes are emphasized, notably in Herman Makkink’s Rocking Machine (1969-70) – a giant white laquered fibreglass penis that the artist dubs ‘A Perpetual Motion Machine’ in the lavishly illustrated catalogue – and in Louise Bourgeois’ flesh-coloured rubber NATURE STUDY (1984), which combines male and female sexual parts. During an artist-led tour on the day of the opening, Leckey jokingly designated Bourgeois as ‘the grandmother of this collection’.

Susan Hiller is yet another contemporary female artist who shaped Leckey’s collection, if only to the extent that she contributed one of the items on view in the final, dark gallery room (also housing Bourgeois’ monstrous sculpture) that Leckey wanted to instill with a rave-like atmosphere. Bedecked with colourful birds and phallic kalla lily flowers, the bearded glazed earthenware figure from Mexico, its torso entirely made up of small androgynous heads, is an analogy for the show which Leckey likens to a colossal, aggregate body or, drawing on cybernetics-inspired jargon, system fashioned from discrete component parts – whether man, animal, machine, monster, or a mixture thereof. Encased in a vitrine, the sculpture recalls Hiller’s seminal 1994-96 From the Freud Museum, a cabinet of curiosities in its own right but one whose intuitive pairings are altogether more subtle, less immediately apparent than the ones offered up to the viewer, all chewed up, as it were, by Leckey.

Take, for instance, the medieval hand reliquary on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum placed besides a Touch Bionics prosthetic hand respresenting the latest technological advances, or the cyberman helmet in close proximity to a gaping-mouthed gargoyle head carved in sandstone. These are displayed on plinths in one of the striking twin booths designed to showcase sundry fetishes against a chrome-key green and blue backdrop, corresponding to the ‘Bodies’ and ‘Machine’ sections respectively. Between them, these matching items illustrate the full spectrum of a show that glaringly juxtaposes different periods and places, flattening or ironing out these differences as it goes, as well as Leckey’s cherished notion of ‘techno-atavism’: the paradoxical notion that as technology becomes more pervasive it brings us back to a state of pan-animism, idolatry and magical thinking that the artist-curator somewhat crudely associates with the Middle Ages, in which objects of all ilk communicate with or address each other across temporal and geographical divides. Hence the memorable title of the show (‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’) borrowed, according to Leckey’s catalogue preface, from ‘a concept in computing that refers to a network of everyday objects, an Internet of Things, all communicating’.

 

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