Exulted: Mark Leckey, To the Old World (Thank You for the Use of Your Body), Cabinet Gallery, London
we all know that nothing happens / only when it happens
In Ross Gay’s spellbinding book-length poem, Be Holding, the American poet draws out 86 pages of associative verse from a 3-second YouTube clip. An attentive and rapturous reading of basketball player Julius Erving’s (Dr. J’s) infamous ‘baseline scoop’ leads Gay through meditations on “the flying Igbo and the Middle Passage, […] photography and surveillance, […] music and personal histories of flight and familial love.” Introduced on the seventh page, the above aphorism becomes a kind of refrain. Dr. J’s move, “which ostensibly occurred / in the 1980 NBA Finals,” transcends the moment of its happening in multiple ways: its legendary status preserves the play in the discourse, rooted in a shared cultural consciousness, and the footage, looping over and over again on Gay’s computer screen, is streamed, shared, edited and reuploaded all across the internet, refreshing the memory for those who first saw it while safeguarding it for generations to come. The event is refracted, propagated, even 20 years after the ball has passed the hoop and Erving’s feet have returned to court. History reverberates uncontrollably, and, as if to drive the point home, Gay’s refrain is immediately restated on the following line: “we all know nothing happens / only when it happens…”
In the main space of Vauxhall’s Cabinet Gallery, a man repeatedly crashes through the glass panel of a bus stop. Again and then again, he throws himself against the shelter, shattering the surface and scattering shards of glass across the floor. Curled up in a ball, surrounded by debris, he moans softly before the screen goes black. Mark Leckey’s To the Old World (Thank You for the Use of Your Body) is a sculpture and a film, a soundscape and a performance piece: a to-scale replica of the iconic TfL bus stop, painted black, is planted in the center of the darkened gallery space, with two screens taking the place of the advertising board and the to-be-smashed Plexiglas panel. The video work that unfolds on these screens, aided by a circle of freestanding speakers, riffs playfully on this grainy, impromptu clip of the ‘Bus Stop Smash’ foraged from an unidentified ‘UK Bants’ Facebook page. Trapped in the purgatorial loop familiar to us from TikTok, Instagram, Vine, etc., our protagonist continually breaks the barrier, hits the ground, and starts again. While we watch the event recur, subtle shifts in texture suggest new contexts, new iterations. At first, any changes are nearly imperceptible, but gradually they accumulate: an extra layer of tinkling glass mixed into the soundscape, a distant voice emerging from the drunken chorus (“Oh my Jesus Christ! He actually- !”). Mirroring the mutations any piece of viral media must undergo in order to survive (to be cropped, stretched, compressed, watermarked, subtitled, collated, compiled, clipped is synonymous with the act of being shared), the video expands within its boundaries, gains new layers as it grows. At its core, however, the ‘Bus Stop Smash’ is a spectacle: an action designed for dissemination, destined to end up on the Facebook page the artist plucked it from. As the man comes crashing through glass in some residential London street, 4AM on a Saturday morning, he sends shards flying in all directions, scattered across platforms and devices, into unknown locations and unexpected meanings. Nothing happens only when it happens, and even an act of such expressive meaninglessness (a drunken dare, a destructive urge) embeds itself in the algorithm, and finds itself exulted in the new world.
“Exulted, meaning to ‘leap up’ or ‘leap out’: So, for me he exults through the bus stop.” This is how Leckey contextualises the clip, admitting that in making the work he wanted “this squalid little act, shitty in its resolution, to become immense.” Leckey’s practice over the last few years has been dedicated to the space in which the otherworldly and the ‘everyday’ collide. His films and sculptures take place in a landscape afflicted by austerity and augmented by social media, yet revolve around transformative experiences of mysticism and prophecy, a troubling duality exemplified most succinctly in the title of his most recent retrospective: O’ Magic Power of Bleakness. (That this show was programmed to run alongside Tate Britain’s William Blake, that mystic of the city streets who saw visions of angels on Peckham Rye, is no coincidence). He weaves pagan rituals out of Snapchat stories, turns decrepit concrete bridges and broken bus stops into sites of worship, shrines to an undiscovered religion. All of Leckey’s recent output has contained a profoundly British sense of aimlessness, yet this new work emphasises the no-less-British tendency towards stubborn self-destruction, unapologetic flirtations with shame. To the Old World exemplifies what happens when this tendency is embraced: content produced and celebrated for its sheer inanity, its blunt, drug-fuelled refusal. In some ways, there is no need for Leckey to make the Bus Stop Smash “immense”, as on the surface it is easily read as a (perhaps too pertinent?) symbol for the ‘state of the nation,’ a country diving headfirst into its own demise. Yet Leckey complicates this reading, as his stance is not entirely one of condemnation, and something about the act gains a sense of religious significance in his hands. Half-way through the film our perspective shifts: after watching our protagonist repeatedly hit the pavement and groan in pain, we are suddenly suspended in the moment of the crash. A stunt double in a blacked-out studio floats towards us in slow-motion, arms before his face as he nears the point of transgression in what I can only hope is a cunning parody of Bill Viola’s pseudo-spiritual ‘meditations’. Just as Viola’s figures reach a state of exultation by rupturing the calm surface of a pool, the glass in Leckey’s film glistens and shimmers as it shatters. Yet while the American artist lodges his monumental projections in the gullet of Durham Cathedral, hoping to infuse them with a weighty significance by association, Leckey finds his transcendence plastered on the side of a bus stop, stumbling home from a night out.
There is a sense, then, that this ‘exultation’ is a direct result of the proposed virality of the clip. Leckey’s desire for immensity is achieved by sheer circulation. The voices of encouragement and amazement that are heard layering up in the film are not those who witnessed the event, but those who saw it online, popping up on their feeds or in their stories. At one point the familiar Snapchat text bar appears, and its proclamation ‘O MY JESUS CHRIST’ is a commentary inscribed after the fact. In his moment of transcendence, is the man breaking through the material world and into a digital one? In an interview on the Interdependence podcast, David Rudnick outlined his concept of Digital Prime versus Physical Prime, speculating towards a time of reckoning when we will all have to choose a side. Do we base our judgements on self on our digital persona, our appearance on social media platforms, or on our corporeal, physical being, our face-to-face interactions in everyday life? In some ways To the Old World appears to exemplify this possibly irreparable split, with the destruction of a real, material object propelling a digital wave of affirmation across the web. The real world is merely fuel for digital notoriety: a “squalid little act” in one realm is seen by thousands in another, harvesting an unforeseen “immensity” in clicks, shares and views. This rift defines the aesthetics of much of what is called ‘post-internet’, yet to emphasise such a divide in Leckey’s work would be disingenuous. It seems more apt to consider To the Old World in light of James Bridle’s New Aesthetic, in which the digital is seen to interrupt the physical world, influencing its course while never truly replacing it. It may have been a ‘Digital Prime’ mindset that drove this figure to throw himself against the bus stop, but those shards will still be there when the commuters arrive in the morning. Even for the participant, viral success doesn’t negate the brute fact of broken glass: even if only briefly, we still see our man groaning in pain, writhing about on the floor.
As Leckey’s work suggests, it would be all to easy to carry the classic dichotomy of the mystical and the rational over to the digital and the real. The digital, just like the mystical, is a place of endless possibility, ungovernable experimentation and exploratory freedom, yet it is prone to false prophets, bugs, hacks and crashes. None of us really know how it works. As magic as it may seem, the digital world still succumbs to the basest human instincts, fosters divisions and furthers our most damaging inclinations. At the same time, there is nothing rational about the real. Leckey’s work operates in the flux between these overlapping realms, observing how they bleed into each other to produce unclassifiable results. Even as he plays with our notion of time, as he does in so many of his films, there is no solid distinction between the transcendent and the aged, the ideal and the weathered. The specifics of the installation testify to this: even when we are absorbed in the film, trapped in the cycle of the event, we are always aware of the ghostly presence of the blacked-out bus stop that houses it in the gallery space. With so much happening, re-happening, all the time, it feels like more than a simple irony that Leckey would shelter us here, a site of waiting.
Images: To the Old World (Thank You for the Use of Your Body) (2021-2022), moving image with six-channel audio, bus stop. Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet Gallery, London.
Identity Crisis: Kim L. Pace, Kindred, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh
It is often said that masks reveal more than they hide. “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” reads Oscar Wilde’s irrepressible quip, “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” The effacement of identity opens up avenues for confession; revelations of desire and impulse divorced from responsibility, action detached from self-consciousness, speech severed from a culpable source. Masks carry with them the context of the carnival, the stage, the ritual: performative sites where, in vaguely Aristotelean terms, surplus energies and repressed emotions are exercised in order to divert them from sublimation into everyday social life. It is within this context that the artist Kim L. Pace pins a pivotal early experience: “My first recollection of the shakiness of identity was as a child on a carnival float dressed as a bear, when nobody recognised me in costume.” This statement, the opening line of her short artist’s biography, is heavy with both significance and ambiguity. For Pace, the mask destabilises our sense of self, yet, by confining the wearer to anonymity, disrupts identification on the part of the observer. When she states that “nobody recognised me in costume,” the resulting feeling is undefined: is this loss of identity liberating or isolating?
Kindred, Pace’s exhibition at Arusha Gallery’s Edinburgh branch, revels in this ambiguity. Faces fill the space: almost every work in the show is a kind of mask, from the multifarious ceramic sculptures to the fluorescent, airbrushed textures of her works on paper. Catriona McAra’s exhibition text describes Pace’s pieces as “painterly […] emojis,” and something feels strangely pertinent about this analogy. While the emotional states that Pace’s masks communicate are complex and vague (or simply ambivalent), their representative power teeters on the edge of abstraction. Like emojis, their ‘humanity’ depends on the slimmest of means, two eyes and a mouth, and even then these essential features are pushed to their limits. Eyes emerge out of wrinkled abscesses, mouths are suggested by slashes, cracks and flaps. In certain works, these minimal features are illustrated only by changes in hue. Instead of allowing for unrestricted expression, we are forced to approach the fundamental emptiness of Pace’s masks as if searching for something of ourselves. Desperate for a ‘kindred’ relation, Pace corners us into pareidolia, that profoundly lonely tendency that has led societies across centuries to find facial features on the surface of the moon.
The bold, almost aggressively bright colours of Pace’s work evoke the festive, expressive atmospheres of the carnival, playing with a theatrical campiness that flirts with the brazenly artificial. Yet the ingeniously applied iridescent gradients also recall the natural world at its most opulent: dragonfly wings, peacock feathers, gemstones, oyster-shells. The richness of these colours lends an atmosphere at once child-like and grotesque, like biting into a handful of Skittles while remembering the crushed-up beetle shells that give the sweets their sheen. Rough, uneven textures and slanted, asymmetrical shapes provide a heightened tension that disturbs their initial approachability. Hidden within these faces is the imperfect ‘ugliness’ of the fracture, the wound. Pace’s masks reveal at their core a crisis of identity, not, like her childhood memory, on the part of the masked, but instead in the panicked eyes of the observer. Caught in the limbo between recognition and isolation, we encounter a humanity desperately searching for identification with the natural world, or, failing that, from the faceless, alienating artificiality it constructs in its place.
Images: Uluru, Sunworshipper, Bonza, Coober Rey (2019-21), glazed ceramic. All courtesy of the artist and Arusha Gallery. Photographs by ZAC and ZAC.