In his engulfing, otherworldly video installation at Tate Britain, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Mark Leckey has transformed a cavernous gallery into a freeway underpass—specifically his childhood hangout under the M53 Motorway, which runs through his deindustrialized hometown on the Wirral Peninsula across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Leckey, born in 1964, is of the same generation as Young British Artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Rachel Whiteread. Like them, he explores the peculiar, oftentimes pernicious mix of class, language and economics that has made postwar UK exceptionally fertile soil for contemporary art and culture.
On ViewTate Britain
September 24, 2019 – January 25, 2020
Unlike his YBA counterparts who shot to international superstardom in the early 1990s, however, Leckey took a slower, more picaresque path to success, winning the 2008 Turner Prize for works like his 1999 video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a paean to Britain’s underground dance scenes compiled from low-fi footage shot by participant-observers. He studied, traveled, squatted and skulked through art, music, and media worlds, gathering ideas, images and information that revealed the animal spirits of his time and place.
It is these spirits that haunt his Tate exhibition. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, along with two newer videos, Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD (2015) and Under Under In (2019), form a story cycle fueled by an intoxicating mixture of nostalgia, pop-culture, and magic. The works are shown on various surfaces in the gallery, which, with its cement-coated pillars and slanted embankment, pasted-on posters and yellow sodium lights, becomes a concrete cave where mysterious events can occur.
Chronicling the many subcultures of Britain’s club scenes, from Northern Soul in the 1970s to raves in the 1990s, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore “is essentially a ghost film,” Leckey says. Its parade of grainy terpsichorean ecstasies and reminders of the fleetingness of youth are so seductive that they color real memories of the time so that “you can’t help but see it on VHS.” Aside from being an attempt to rid himself of a queasy yearning for an idealized past, the work also, the artist admits, represents a hauntology. In his 1993 book Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida coined this term to describe a haunted ontology—a world where failed utopian socialist systems stalk contemporary consciousness, reminding us that globalized capitalism is not inevitable. The term has since come to signify the endless recycling of the past in music and media today, and in this video it reminds us both of the tremendous power and appeal of DIY movements and how their creativity and rituals can represent freedom and resistance.
Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD, attempts to piece together a lifetime of memories through snippets of found imagery. It was inspired by finding a YouTube recording of a 1979 Joy Division concert the artist attended at 15. Leckey set himself the challenge of recreating a Bildungsroman using found fragments of video. Equipped with time codes ticking away the passing years and lots of digitally generated imagery, his attempt begins with a fragment of a black-and-white home movie showing a young boy, perhaps the artist himself, jumping and clapping in a grotty backyard. Then, in rapid-fire succession, opening chords of Beatles songs, footage of a woman in fishnet stockings at her dressing table, mushroom clouds, a sleeping bag on a bare mattress, the Hale Bopp comet and a shadowy figure resembling the artist walking the streets of nighttime London create a sumptuous son et lumière self-portrait. It culminates in a photorealistic animation depicting what could be construed as Leckey’s symbolic doppelganger: a 1960s communications satellite consisting of a spherical balloon made of aluminum-covered plastic that drifts high above the earth receiving and bouncing back broadcasts from its surface.
Debuting in this exhibition and shown on five large, high-definition flat screens, Under Under In depicts the nocturnal exploits of a gang of kids in creepy black and high-vis Adidas, Nike, and North Face gear who gather in the fabricated M53 underpass. Composed of a mix of cellphone, night-vision, and digitally constructed imagery, it presents a hyper-contemporary folktale. Scenes of the protagonists huffing paint and running wild are intercut with poetic title cards reading “apparitions & fetches” and “old work of giants,” followed by an abduction into subterranean grottoes shown as glowing green wireframe computer renderings as the gallery’s sodium lights flicker in psychedelic colors, and a brilliant ray of white light penetrates a seam in the roadbed overhead. Ending with silhouettes of performers in yogic bridge poses, the work emblematizes Leckey’s ongoing interest in the ways technology and media shape consciousness. It too is inspired by youthful memories, in particular an encounter with a supernatural being that occurred in the very spot when he was a boy. Leckey says Under Under In’s dramatic action is a “supernatural riot.” Its protagonists, he says, “mimic the bridge which is an environment that is literally toxic, and in that mimicry they become rapturous. The idea of the mind as a collective. All the music that I love—rave and jungle or hardcore—was produced the same way.”
Under Under In, however, stands out in its unrelenting darkness and shaky-cam jitteriness. In contrast to the other two works, there is little in it that suggests union, transcendence or release. Instead, we hear shouted curses and see faces lit by glowing smartphones and a descent into a digital underworld. We may, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, live as we dream, alone. But Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore and Dream English Kid, 1964-1999 AD point to the dream of community and a world made better through the excesses and inventions of youth. His most recent work conjures little more than the spooky alone-together alienation and anxiety of our screen-based era.