interview by ALEX ISRAEL
portrait by ANNABEL MEHRAN
All images courtesy of Mark Leckey and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York
Mark Leckey, one of the most interesting of the post-Young British Artists, won the 2008 Turner Prize and had a solo exhibition last summer at the Serpentine Gallery. He explores the effect of language in contemporary signifiers: products and brands, entertainment and music, and also contemporary art. Leckey is fascinated by the immaterial properties of physical things, yet rarely makes objects himself, opting to work in film, video, and performance. Leckey was in Los Angeles last fall for a residency at the Hammer Museum. We spoke in a park in Westwood, sitting just yards away from a massive bronze abstract sculpture — not unlike those that populate Leckey’s 2006 video, “The March of the Big White Barbarians.”
ALEX ISRAEL — I’ve heard you speak about your upbringing, and how you were, to some extent, a product of popular culture.
MARK LECKEY — I didn’t have anything else. There wasn’t pop culture on the one hand, and then serious culture or a kind of high culture on the other. There was only pop — that’s what I grew up in.
ALEX ISRAEL — What influenced you when you were growing up?
MARK LECKEY — When I was a kid, I liked fantasy, sci-fi, Tolkien, and things like that. Doctor Who was a big one for me — a British sci-fi TV show I liked. The first band I ever saw, at 15, was The Jam, and then The Specials. They blew my mind, and I got really into music. 1980 was a brilliant time. I’d just finished high school. Everything compressed in Britain into a mix of punk, post-punk, and the ska revival, and then Depeche Mode. All that happened within four years.
ALEX ISRAEL — You mean the transition from the ’70s into the ’80s?
MARK LECKEY — It was phenomenal. I was a bit too young to really get it, but as a teenager I saw Joy Division.
ALEX ISRAEL — Were your experiences with music comparable to the ones you’ve had with art?
MARK LECKEY — That’s the experience I carry with me and the one I want to replicate in my work, which probably derives more from music than it does from art. I aspire to the condition of music because music goes beyond language. Most contemporary art can be broken down into conceptual parts, and is understood in that way. Music is harder to break down like that.
ALEX ISRAEL — Would you say music is more primal than art?
MARK LECKEY — Well, there’s definitely something primal about art, too. That’s one reason I make art and not music. It would be a lie, though, to idealize music and to think it’s somehow more authentic or pure or more primal than art. There’s also something that’s distinctive about art that I can’t find in music. Nevertheless, there’s a condition in music that I aspire to. There’s a dynamic between the desire to make art and the desire not to make art that creates a kind of energy, a sort of dynamism. I mean, last night I wrote out, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, “I am not an artist.”
ALEX ISRAEL — That sounds like something John Baldessari would do.
MARK LECKEY — I wasn’t trying to be cleverly conceptual. I wanted to stop thinking about making art and being an artist.
ALEX ISRAEL — How many times did you write it?
MARK LECKEY — Six times. I meant to go on, but then I just didn’t see any point carrying on. I had made the point. There’s always the desire to escape. And there’s always the desire to transpose the effect that music has into the art, which can be really sticky. One of the things I always worry about is that you end up dragging and dropping things from outside the art world into it. You look elsewhere for an energy that’s lacking in art. The trouble is, most of those energies don’t have the value of art attached to them, so if you can drag them into the art world, their value increases exponentially. But maybe there’s something amoral about using stuff.
ALEX ISRAEL — You mean like colonizing?
MARK LECKEY — You end up creating a research laboratory for art that scours the obscure pockets of the world for energy.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did music affect your personal style? I remember reading somewhere that you described yourself as being a “Casual.” What does that mean?
MARK LECKEY — Around 1974 to 1976, there was a paradigm shift. Maybe postmodernism appeared then, and one began to see these long-term economic shifts occurring as we left behind industrialization and moved toward a fully installed service economy. Massive — but new — energizing processes began to take shape. One of the things they threw up was Casuals. Casuals were very weird. They started in Liverpool.
ALEX ISRAEL — Like hipsters?
MARK LECKEY — No, not at all. They were all working-class kids who were into David Bowie from the ’70s.
ALEX ISRAEL — But Casuals didn’t dress like glam-rock Bowie?
MARK LECKEY — No. That was too camp for them. Casuals were heterosexual and working class, so you couldn’t be camp. On the cover of Bowie’s LP Low from ’77, he’s got a wedge haircut, which was invented by Vidal Sassoon. The Casual lads had long, asymmetrical fringes. At the same time, they were going to Europe for football games, and they’d pick up, or steal, the sportswear being sold there, which was really expensive.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you steal sportswear?
MARK LECKEY — I stole a few things in my youth. But Casuals ended up amalgamating a look, like they were going to go play tennis in Sergio Tacchini, with elaborate girlish haircuts. You’d see 20 of these kids together. It was Thatcher’s England. The Casuals were looking through Playboy magazine to see what the dudes were wearing and then mixing it up.
ALEX ISRAEL — Reading about your work, I see that style is a theme that constantly comes up. You’ve spoken often about a period in your life when you become a kind of flâneur, or dandy. I’m curious to know how you see your style now, and how you think about style: is it as important to you as it was in the past?
MARK LECKEY — To be honest, it’s kind of dying out. For the past couple of years, I’ve been far less bothered about style than I used to be. I used to want to be the best-dressed man in town, and for a period, I was. [Laughs] Now, I’ve lost the inclination. I’m not a bachelor anymore, so I don’t have the need to go out and to display myself.
ALEX ISRAEL — At one point, you lived in an apartment you referred to as your bachelor flat. Throughout that period, you explored your bachelorhood, perhaps in relationship to Duchamp. And if that’s so, how would you define your bride?
MARK LECKEY — My bride was art. The bride represents intercourse with an object, where you think you’ve really found something.
ALEX ISRAEL — And since you’re no longer a bachelor, has that drive for the bride disappeared?
MARK LECKEY — No, but it’s gone somewhere else. A bachelor is a monad, an isolated person, cut off from society. I thought that was a productive way of life. I thought that to be an artist, you had to be wedded to your art, literally, which is your bride. I thought that this was the most productive engine.
ALEX ISRAEL — To have a single focus?
MARK LECKEY — Yes, to be totally focused, totally obsessed, to be monomaniacal about everything — just you, exploring yourself. In the end, I didn’t like the isolation. I became a selfish bastard. There was a point where I didn’t want to be that. I didn’t want to be that lonely and cut off.
ALEX ISRAEL — Yes, but the bachelor theme has returned to your recent work in the form of the smart refrigerator: GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, 2010. You refer to the “smart fridge” as the central object in a bachelor’s apartment.
MARK LECKEY — The fridge was a transitional object. I’m now trying to get out of that way of working. The thing is, I make work as a way to understand my own pathologies. That’s the drive. I have these desires that I don’t understand, which are very intense and very compulsive, but I don’t know what it is that compels me to make and produce them.
ALEX ISRAEL — By desire, do you mean attractions to objects and things?
MARK LECKEY — Yes, to objects, things, images, whatever.
ALEX ISRAEL — Why was the fridge a transitional work or impulse?
MARK LECKEY — I wanted the fridge to be a bachelor’s appliance, and to look like that. But, actually, a fridge is not as closed off as a bachelor. A fridge exists in correspondence with everything. That’s what I want now. So the fridge is a surrogate.
ALEX ISRAEL — I’m curious why you chose a fridge. In your work, it has a monolithic presence, in relationship to the green screen backdrop. But why not a smart oven or a smart phone or a smart car?
MARK LECKEY — A fridge is potentially the smartest appliance after a phone. A lot of technology and thought have made fridges super smart. I guess the only other smart thing would be a TV. But a fridge is uncannily smart because it’s aware of what’s being placed inside it. It’s aware of its own inventory. It’s able to inform you when it’s out of something.
ALEX ISRAEL — It provides feedback?
MARK LECKEY — Exactly. It can suggest recipes and other things, too.
ALEX ISRAEL — The fridge is also an object of coldness and coolness. Is that a reason that compelled you to choose it?
MARK LECKEY — There’s something about its coolness that appeals to me. If you’re a man, it’s like you’re hard-wired to find big black things sexy, like a Tony Smith or Donald Judd sculpture. I needed something that had real presence in the gallery, something that had weight and density and volume, and the fridge is the biggest kind of appliance. It wouldn’t work with a printer, and a TV’s not as passive as a fridge. I needed something that was kind of flat and seemingly indifferent and seemingly dumb. Something that’s not able to talk back to you, but that actually does.
ALEX ISRAEL — In the audio component of the video GreenScreenRefrigerator, the text that’s recited has the feel of free-associative rap. With the Auto-Tune effect in full gear, it sounds like T-Pain. Is that something you’re playing with? Did you intend for the audio to sound like R. Kelly singing through the iPhone T-Pain app?
MARK LECKEY — That’s basically the best thing you could say about it. Talking about music and aspiring to the condition of music, I think one of the best things of the past ten years was R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet. It was genius, and I mean that without irony. I think it has moments where it gets kind of lazy and stupid and crass, but only in and of itself — in terms of itself. I sort of aspire to that. I wanted to make a poem about a fridge. I’d been listening a lot to Jonathan Richman’s song, Roadrunner. It’s all about him in a car driving around Boston late at night — him and the radio and the modern world. The refrain is, “I’m in love with the modern world / I’ve got the radio on.” I wanted that. I wanted to communicate the sense of being in love with this modern object.
ALEX ISRAEL — Do you get the perverseness of falling in love with an appliance?
MARK LECKEY — I don’t know about you, but my desires are pretty perverse.
ALEX ISRAEL — What kind of impact did Pop Art have on your sensibility? Were you looking at British Pop?
MARK LECKEY — Yes. British Pop produced one of the best British artists of all time, Richard Hamilton.
ALEX ISRAEL — Was Hamilton a big influence on your work?
MARK LECKEY — Later. Weirdly, later. He certainly is now. I make things, and then I find out that he’d already done them before.
ALEX ISRAEL — Like his minicomputer?
MARK LECKEY — Yes. I wanted to make a plastic relief, and he’d made plastic reliefs of the Guggenheim, which are great. I keep bouncing up against him, which is good. When I first started out, in college, I wanted to be a mural painter like Diego Rivera. I was deeply suspicious of art. I thought it was poncey and only for the middle class. I wanted to make something that was populist. When I was starting out, I had a mentality that was more like Banksy’s.
ALEX ISRAEL — Well, you certainly achieved popular success with Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore in 1999.
MARK LECKEY — The thing about that piece is its special nostalgic ingredient. You can wipe the floor with nostalgia. You just throw some nostalgia onto anything, and what you get is going to be Pop and speak to more people. After Fiorucci, I didn’t want to keep making nostalgic things because I didn’t want to repeat myself and because I find it too hurtful. It’s painful making things about nostalgia. It’s sad.
ALEX ISRAEL — Or sentimental?
MARK LECKEY — You get drawn into sentimentality. I did the GreenScreenRefrigerator performance, and a lot of people from the art world responded by asking, “What was that?” My friends who aren’t in the art world responded more directly to it and actually understood it.
ALEX ISRAEL — Is it important to make work that communicates to a broader audience?
MARK LECKEY — Yes, but the trouble is that in art, if you try to make something quite direct, people aren’t going to take that directness at face value. They’re going to think you’re being ironic, or they’re going to think you’re being clever, or that there’s some subterfuge or something else going on. In art it’s really hard to just say: this is it, there’s nothing more.
ALEX ISRAEL — Jeff Koons always says his works are not about irony.
MARK LECKEY — But no one believes him! It’s amazing — no one believes him.
ALEX ISRAEL — He creates the opposite effect, in fact: the more he insists that a work is not ironic, the more his audience believes that it is. To a large extent, Koons shifted the possibilities for Pop’s original directness. You’ve got to claim that back somehow.
MARK LECKEY — I think we’re coming out of that. I think there’s a transition happening now. Art is trying to escape irony. Most of the good work I see now willfully attempts to shake off any sense of irony. Fiorucci had that effect, the broad appeal. I’m trying to find a way back to that.
ALEX ISRAEL — In the live performance lecture, The Long Tail, 2009, you argue that culture is dematerializing because of the widespread use of the Internet. You call the phenomenon “The Long Tail,” and you explain that this tail, or this phenomenon, is currently in a state of growth. In a world headed toward the total dematerialization of culture, where will art exist? In the ’60s, didn’t Conceptual Art already attempt a dematerialization of the art object? What would you like to see happen to art?
MARK LECKEY — In the ’60s, when art dematerialized, it was a choice. Artists chose to dematerialize their own work. This is different. I don’t think we have a choice. I think the dematerialization of art comes from outside forces. Art inevitably has to become less professional because so many people now have access to the means of professional art production. People can make videos and images.
ALEX ISRAEL — And distribute them online.
MARK LECKEY — Artists make images, and now everybody is learning the language of image-making. So being able to make an image is like being able to write. It becomes second nature. Therefore, we face a profusion of image-making: videos on YouTube and all the rest of it. I don’t see how art can protect its borders.
ALEX ISRAEL — So do you see art as facing an endpoint, when there no longer exists a distinction between art and YouTube?
MARK LECKEY — In a utopian way, that’s kind of what I’d like to see. I think it’s the reason I wrote out, “I am not an artist.” I want to possess the means to make images and to make videos and to produce art.
ALEX ISRAEL — Creative artifacts?
MARK LECKEY — Yes. Nicely put. The problem I have with the art world is that it cramps you into an overly self-reflective intellectual position. That’s what I’d like to be freed from — and be able to make things without having to qualify them as art, and to position them in an art-world discourse.
ALEX ISRAEL — As the long tail conceivably grows, and art and the rest of culture dematerialize, any artwork that doesn’t dematerialize will become fetishized and coveted. Art will become more precious and rare.
MARK LECKEY — Yes, and you’ll have the market that will meet the shift. As long as the economy stays the way it is, then the wealthiest one percent will continue to want to buy the one percent of art that remains a rare and unique physical thing. There will always be that kind of value and desire, and there will always be people that will produce that kind of art.
ALEX ISRAEL — It’s fascinating to hear this coming from you because your history is marked by a desire for an expensive European tracksuit jacket, Italian designer denims, Koons’s bunny, and a smart fridge. You’re attracted to brands and to products, and obsessed with your own attraction to them. So why are you resistant to making things?
MARK LECKEY — That’s a very good question. The easy answer would be because I think if you make things that become associated with your name, then you’re captured. And I don’t want to be caught. I want to remain elusive. What I always liked about the Casuals was that the reason they dressed the way that they did was to elude being captured. You didn’t know what or who they were.
ALEX ISRAEL — You mean no one knew if they were upper, middle, or working class?
MARK LECKEY — You didn’t know anything about them. That’s what gave Casuals power. Their style was completely indefinable. There was a quality about them that you just couldn’t pinpoint. That, to me, is true style. It imprints itself on your mind, but you’re not sure why. Whereas with a brand, you’re always very aware of why it’s been imprinted on your mind.
ALEX ISRAEL — You feature yourself in certain works as a kind of character — a flâneur, a bachelor, or a lecturer. In other works, you make a point to disappear. For example, your reflection is absent in the mirrored surface of the Koons bunny in Made in ’Eaven, 2004, and in GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction you disappear under a green screen curtain. In these decisions, there seems to be a point of tension related to the idea of making a thing or not, but centered around you, your person. How do you want to be perceived by a viewer? Do you prefer to be present, to be fetishized as an object — or absent, or dematerialized?
MARK LECKEY — Now we’re getting into something more like psychoanalysis. [Laughs] I think there is a tension there. Half of me wants to be disgustingly well known and iconic, but another side of me, which I hope is the smarter side of me, wants to elude all that. It wants to avoid that as much as possible. But in the short term, that’s not the most interesting route to take.
ALEX ISRAEL — Growing up, you were nourished by popular culture and entertainment. Tell me about living in LA. What do you think about the city? What do you like about it?
MARK LECKEY — There’s an instant recognizability in LA because part of the city is instantly familiar. Then, a lot of LA is a total surprise, especially for someone coming from Europe, because we have this distorted picture of LA, that it’s basically downtown. That seems to be the most depicted part of LA, but no one lives there. I haven’t even been there once. Also, there’s this weird feeling here that you’ve reached the glass elevator in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and that everything actually does come from here. You see culture marching out. When I get home to London, things that are made here will begin to appear there. The other thing I find weird about LA is the topography. It seems that the Internet is basically a copy of LA’s topography. It’s all about adjoining freeways to nodes.
ALEX ISRAEL — Superhighways trafficked by surfers?
MARK LECKEY — Well, even though this is the place where the idea of the virtual replacing the real is most expressed, I’ve come to think of that as total rubbish. Not because I’ve realized any reality about LA in particular, but because I think the idea is unfounded. I’ve come to a realization that images and their representations are separate and distinct. They’re distinct entities. They refer to each other, and they refer back to one another, but they’re not the same and they shouldn’t be confused as being the same.
ALEX ISRAEL — LA is a place where those distinctions and differences can be seen in broad daylight.
MARK LECKEY— Exactly. When you live here, you realize it.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you ever see LA Story?
MARK LECKEY — Yes.
ALEX ISRAEL — Remember the parts where Steve Martin talks to the electric sign on the freeway? Those moments remind me of your work, and vice-versa. So does that scene from Anchors Aweigh, where Gene Kelly is dancing with the animated mouse. There’s an interaction that you cultivate. When you’re lecturing, an integration between the live and the recorded, the virtual and the real, comes up. The other night, when you lectured at the Hammer Museum, you played the drum and then your Power Point presentation played the drum. You had timed it out perfectly that the sounds occurred in perfect rhythm. What is it about that kind of Disneyland interaction between you and technology, between you and what’s happening on the screen?
MARK LECKEY — The desire to be immersed in the pixels of the picture. That’s what I got from Fiorucci.
ALEX ISRAEL — But is it also a desire to be entertaining?
MARK LECKEY — Yes, maybe, or a sense of theater. I like a bit of cheese. There’s this idea that spectacle is bad and participation is good. These things can be used for different ends.
ALEX ISRAEL — There’s no reason they can’t complement each other?
MARK LECKEY— Exactly. I’m always trying to do that. When I watch, I want to be immersed. And when I show things to people, I want them to feel the way I do. I want people to lose themselves, to get lost in the same thing I’m lost in. Then I can talk to them because we’re on the same level, and in the same mind state. That, to me, is a good form of manipulation.
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