Artist Mark Leckey is glued to the internet, watching the closing days of his largest solo exhibition unfold across the Atlantic. Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers, taking place at MoMA PS1 until 5 March, is both Mark’s first major US show and the first retrospective of his work.
“I look on Instagram and it looks busy, but like I say, it’s hard to tell,” he ponders, nostalgia leaking in through the gaps in his sentences. “You used to be able to do a show and walk away from it and it was done, but now you get all this constant feedback.” Do you listen to that feedback or ignore it? I ask. “I take it all in – every little bit. The wise advice is don’t read any reviews, don’t listen to anything. I know some people who can do that but I like to get involved in the mess of it. I never liked the idea of being distant in any way.”
Since the 90s, the former Turner Prize winner has been making video and sculptures ranging from sound systems stacked high which spit out soundscapes composed of gargles and farts to roughly autobiographical video montages compiled from found footage. Through his work, Mark Leckey speaks of class, technology and pop culture, exorcising emotion in all its messy beauty along the way.
Mark Leckey’s work creates the kind of nostalgia that knocks you sideways, staring wide-eyed into a past you never knew. As the world counted down to the year 2000, in a small flat in Windmill Street he cobbled together hours of footage from VHS tapes into the 15-minute short that would come to define his career. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore was a roughly chronological overview of 30 years of British nightclub culture, from the speedy Northern Soul all nighters of the 70s to 90s field raves via the casuals culture which Mark associated with as a teenager growing up in Liverpool.
With a soundscape of snatched snippets of music, disembodied cheers, crowd sounds and hyped-up MCs, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore in 2017 reads like something of a warning of fading freedom. The video is a portrait of people and parties, dancing and drugs, but most of all it’s a stark reminder that nothing is forever: the lights will always come on at the end of every night. “Everything I make is a response to what I am anxious about, what I’m feeling,” Mark says. “It’s not about ideas particularly, or concepts, I’m not really using concepts as a guide. In a lot of ways, my work has the same process or the same compulsion that drove Fiorucci which is that I just need to purge things that are festering.”
We caught up with Mark to talk about nostalgia, freedom and Pepe the Frog.
Tell me about the ideas underlining Fiorucci. What was your mindset when you were making the film?
I was in a mindset of debilitating nostalgia. There were three reasons to make Fiorucci. I’d been living in America and I’d become very nostalgic for the UK. When I came back to London I had to somehow purge that nostalgia, I had to get rid of it. Two, I felt like rave especially, hardcore, was under appreciated or unacknowledged in some way, and I felt like that was to do with class. I left London went Britpop was starting, and that was celebrated and I thought it was pretty weak. That was one of the reasons I left – I thought it was nostalgic in a non-productive way.
I felt it was retrogressive. Britpop was celebrated and yet rave and hardcore, which I thought was futuristic and forward facing, wasn’t, and that seemed to be to be about class. I guess the class aspect was something to do with the art world. I was feeling a slight class antagonism there. Three, I was sick of seeing documentaries with talking heads about music that I loved. I wanted some kind of engagement and it was always in this format that deadened it and destroyed it, so I wanted to make something that was a sense of that history rather than a social record.
Watching Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is a very nostalgic experience for me, even though I was born in 1990. Why do you think that is?
There’s nostalgia which is nourished at that point when you’re eight or nine years old, things that you have a dim recollection of that were on the periphery. That seeps in and then you find it later in life and there’s an attraction there. I think nostalgia is massively amplified by technology, by the availability of all the images, the magazines, the videos and all the rest of it. That’s all accelerated so there’s more nostalgia. Lastly, I think it’s to do with maybe a declining freedom. For me the energy of the 60s looked incredibly productive and freeing and liberating, and the 70s looked the same. I guess now if you’re looking back on the 90s, the idea idea that mass subculture could appear now seems improbable.
There’s also a sense of ephemerality, the idea that no matter how hard you cling onto night, dawn is right there behind you.
A lot of Fiorucci is filmed on VHS, and it has this quality that makes everything quite spectral and ghostly. I think that moment you’re describing is very melancholic. You asked me what kind of a state I was in when I made the video. I was melancholic, bordering on morbid. There’s quite a morbid, haunted quality about it I think. I was haunted by this stuff, and I think I subconsciously made it like a ghost film. There’s something quite eery and spooky about the film. I think when you watch Fiorucci it’s upsetting rather than comforting. I don’t think you watch it and go ‘ah, the good old days!’ I think it deeply saddens you.
Do you think that sense of sadness came out of the end of the 90s?
The millennium, you felt it, it was there. It was mix of anxiety and hope. When I look back on it now, it was a really hopeful decade. I think the last hopeful decade.
"I think when you watch _Fiorucci_ it’s upsetting rather than comforting. I don’t think you watch it and go ‘ah, the good old days!’ I think it deeply saddens you."Mark Leckey
Do you think we’re now post club or subcultures?
I think we’re post whatever that progression was – the mods in the 60s, the hippies, the punks. That’s gone, but in terms of subcultures, the other day I was in Soho and I saw one of those Supreme drops. It had the same dynamic as anything I remember from when I was a youth. This alt-right Pepe [the Frog] stuff, I’d call that a subculture: it’s about the conditions that produce these things. The conditions that produced pop culture in the 20th Century were analogue, they were about the advent of the record player, about amplification, about being able to hear music from America. There were all these things that birthed rock and roll and pop. Now we have the internet, and that’s birthing something different, but it’s still subcultural in that I don’t know about it, and nor should I. I literally found about Supreme last week because I walked into this massive crowd of youth.
Looking forward rather than back, what interests you most about the world today?
Fucking world politics. What else is there to be interested in at the moment? It’s all encompassing and all consuming. I find it very hard: I don’t really know how to respond to what’s happening in terms of art. I don’t know what the response is. In the art world you’re taught to diagnose culture, you learn critical theory in order to understand the world, but it has left me with nothing. I have no diagnosis for this. I have no understanding, I can’t grasp it.
I make things that are personal because I want to feel like I know what I’m talking about. I think if you go with the flow of contemporary art then you find yourself making work about ideas, the discourse, what’s in the magazines and so forth, so just to make stuff about myself allows me not to be seduced by that, but at the same time I don’t really believe in myself in that sense. I’m just an effect of culture — I’m the gaseous vapours that burnt off the greater energy of culture. In terms of a response to now, it’s hard to picture.