“I do feel stuck between the past and the future, the middle class and the working class,” Mark Leckey told Frieze editor Dan Fox on Friday. “I’m effectively middle class.” Leckey thought for a second about how he’d back that point up, perhaps considering how a middle-class citizen could be the subject of a talk at Frieze New York, the tony art fair on Randall’s Island. “I like kale,” he added.
It was with this relaxed tone that Leckey talked about his career with Fox. The focus of the talk, which was called “Haunted by What,” was the past and nostalgia in Leckey’s work. The British artist is most famous for a 1999 video called Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, after all—its focus is the British underground music scene as it changed from the ’70s through the ’90s. As Fox pointed out, Fiorucci has become “a cult video, which is a rare thing for an artist”—it has well over 100,000 hits on YouTube. Fox later added, “You could say, over the years, that I’ve been haunted by Mark and his work.”
Leckey himself seemed to agree that there was something off-putting about his videos, which feature music, digitally manipulated Jeff Koons sculptures, and humans becoming refrigerators with the help of green-screen technology. He brought up his recent film Dream English Kid 1964–1999 AD (2015), an essayistic retelling of his coming of age in Liverpool. “Subculture [there] has lost its energy,” he said. “It’s lost its vitality, but that shows that I’m old…. That shows that it’s slipping away. I’m haunted by it.” As he said this, gusts of wind howled outside, causing the screen above him to sway back and forth.
Not unlike his work, Leckey alternated between poetic and informal as he spoke. Fox was dressed like the class valedictorian, in a sharp sweater, but Leckey was a fashionable slacker. He wore a baby-blue jacket and one dangling earring; his long, straight, brown hair was brushed away from his face. His look, not unlike his shamanistic personality, is very much stuck in the good ol’ days.
“This is a thing that technology does,” Leckey said. “It pushes you towards the future, but it also boomerangs you towards the past.”
Much of the talk focused on how Leckey uses the Internet and digital technology to access ideas that interest him. Leckey explained that for Dream English Kid, he started the video by drinking a glass of whiskey and browsing YouTube. He wanted to create something personal (he described himself as a “sentimental person”), and he feels that not enough art aspires to that goal.
“I was just thinking the other day about how art doesn’t convince me,” Leckey told Fox. “I want to do that—I want to believe it.”
But you’d never know it from some of his videos, which can sometimes be deliberately cold and emotionless. There’s Made in ’Eaven (2004), a video in which a camera circles around a Koons balloon-animal sculpture in Leckey’s apartment. (“I’m usually good at titling, but I fucked up on this one,” Leckey said.) The camera is never reflected in the work’s shiny surface—Leckey forgot to put it back in—but it only enhances the fakeness of the computer-generated Koons.
The apartment, however, is Leckey’s “bachelor pad,” as he called it, and he was pretty open about what he did there. “It was a place where I could grind my own chocolate, as Duchamp would put it,” Leckey said. Some audience members recoiled. “No, that’s not good, is it?” he added, somewhat timidly.
He also discussed GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction, a 2010 performance in which Leckey, cloaked in a green-screen cloth, huffed coolant and became the voice of a fridge in a video. Without being asked to elaborate on it, Leckey spoke about getting high. “I want to be transported, fundamentally,” he said. “I want to be fridge-like. I know that’s absurd, but it took me somewhere.”
In the questions section, Leckey continued to discuss technology, this time somewhat against his will. One audience member asked for a tour of Leckey’s computer desktop, which was being projected on the screen. (Leckey alluded to the fact that his porn was hidden, so this would be a SFW tour.) “I’m not showing pictures of my daughter, no,” he said. He opened a folder called “FELIX DOME.” “Ah, I’ve got to explain this now. This is a piece I’m making. That was a humble brag, wasn’t it?”
The work was an installation where viewers enter a Felix the Cat head to watch a video in which Leckey himself is dressed as Felix. And what was up with Felix? “I’m very attracted to him,” Leckey said. The character has appeared in Leckey’s work a number of times—it’s a reference to the first electronic image of an object ever, which was none other than a plastic version of the cartoon character Felix the Cat. “I want to be inside things, to inhabit things, so that I can be inside the mind and experience being Felix,” he said.
One audience member asked about experiencing the present as being the recent past, thanks to our phones and “Twittering.” Leckey didn’t seem to know how to respond, so Fox jumped in. “I was reading somewhere—I can’t remember where—about what the fossil record of this particular time will be,” Fox said. “It’s just going to be a bunch of dead plastic objects that hold the memory of a civilization in them.”
“Should we end on that note?” Leckey asked.
Fox laughed and said, “The end of civilization, Mark Leckey. Thank you.”