by Dinos Chatzirafailidis
Containers and Their Drivers is an exhibition that is quite fittingly named after a song performed by English post-punk band The Fall. It showcases the art of British, Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey, in a career spanning from the 1990s up to the present. Organized by MoMA PS1’s Curator Peter Eleey and the Chief Curator of MoMA’s Department of Media and Performance Art Stuart Comer, this comprehensive retrospective delves into issues such as ownership, commodity fetishism and the aftermath of the Digital Age. At the same time, it is also inscribed by a vividly personal and nostalgic undertone.
With an undeniably profound passion for the British underground scene, Leckey traces British dance subcultures in several parts of the exhibition and correspondingly explores the natural human impulse to gather and be a part of a group. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) is a fifteen-minute video that was one of the first pieces for which Leckey received recognition in his career. In a pre-YouTube era, the artist spent four years of collecting and putting together VHS footage of dance nightclubs from the 1970s to the 1990s, displaying teenagers and young adults caught in moments of ecstatic celebration. The video features crowds of ravers dancing, teens in rollerskaters and groups of people walking down the streets, which constitutes an insightful portrait of the underground scene of the late twentieth-century Britain. Standing away from the general public, the subcultures presented in this short video behave as hedonistic anti-utopias and are suggestive of individuality and revolt. As they watch the progression of the British club culture unravel before their eyes, the viewers experience a nostalgic throw-back to that era, even if they were not alive at that time or in that context. The sense of belonging and standing against the norm as part of a minority group also takes a political dimension and makes the work very timely for a large part of American audience members.
In another room of the exhibition, the viewer can stand next to a giant inflatable Felix the Cat, which is one of the most recognized cartoon characters that were created in the silent film era. Felix the Cat (2013) takes almost half of the space in that room. The viewer enters without any warning. As claustrophobic as it can get, this oversized balloon slumps in a corner and allows the spectators to walk around the pop culture icon it represents and to pay attention to the specificities of it in such a way that they may have never imagined. But this is not the only time where Felix appears in this exhibition. Viewers can see Felix appear again as part of different artworks and installations. This unmasking of a popular culture artifact, the history of which traces back to the advent of American commercial television and which has become a worldwide phenomenon, reproduced countless times as a doll, puts the emphasis on those subject’s superfluous nature. At the same time, by making it one of the focal points of his art, Leckey raises it up to iconic status, celebrating the blending of low with high art.
Even though the exhibition examines Leckey’s work since 1999, there are more recent works included in the show that explore the artist’s engagement with the potential of universally known brands to affect the spectator’s understanding of their own role within contemporary society. GreenScreenRefrigerator (2010-16) is an immersive installation that absorbs the viewer into Samsung’s brand domain. A plain black fridge stands next to speakers, TV screens and other electronic devices, all carefully arranged in a spacious green studio, while Leckey’s own voice channels the imposing refrigerator in an act where the boundaries between human and machine are gravely blurred. Even if the viewer happens to be alone in the installation space for a moment, she or he will certainly not feel lonesome, surrounded by a group of devices that she or he may even own and use on a daily basis. But there is an uncanny quality about these talking devices; they are put in an unfamiliar environment, standing totemic next to each other.
Additionally, there is a transcript of the refrigerator’s monologue presented to the viewer, in which the life-like machine expresses its own fears and desires in a highly confessional tone. Phrases such as “I liken myself to other things” and “here all of us are still” reveal a high level of self-awareness that one does not necessarily expect from a lifeless electronic device. Surrounded by increasingly intelligent objects, Leckey puts into the mind of the spectator questions around our own relationships with these devices and utilizes the notion of the unheimlich (or uncanny) in order to mobilize both cognitive and psychic processes in confrontation with charged components or environments representative of the Digital Era.
Ultimately, marketing brands, pop culture icons and British subcultures’ histories are all merged into a show that challenges the connection between new and old technologies. Leckey provokes the viewer to think of whether we really possess the objects and images around us or if they are the ones that actually possess us. In a satirical engagement with late capitalism, where everything seems to be a replica, one may wonder about what is actually real or not.
Containers and Their Drivers is an extensive two-floor exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York that will run through March 5, 2017.
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