The long black tail of Felix the Cat snakes its way through the Grundy’s galleries. From a giant inflatable moggy slumped against the gallery wall, to a projected animation of a rhythmically flicking black line, the exhibition brings together a number of works made by Mark Leckey over the last nine years that feature the character, and more precisely the tail, of Felix the Cat.
The story of Leckey and Felix begins with the artist finding a photograph of the cartoon cat taken in NBC’s New York studio in 1928. The photo showed a 13” papier-mâché figurine of Felix standing on a record player turntable in front of a mechanical scanning disk, a machine used for early broadcast experiments. This earliest form of Television transmitted an electronic image of the rotating Felix figurine to become, as NBC would have originally termed it, the first “Picture-on-Air”, transforming the three dimensional object into a flickering on-screen image, making the cartoon cat the inaugural figure of our contemporary image world.
From ‘Felix Gets Broadcasted’ (2007), to the newly commissioned ‘FEELINTHECAT’ (2016), Leckey repeatedly and obsessively plays with the image of Felix, transforming the tail of the cat from a playful anthropomorphic line to an eclectic mélange of association. Leckey’s 2009 lecture ‘In The Long Tail’ outlines a pathway of historical and cultural resonance that seemingly stems from the cartoon cat. Charting the rise of Felix, Leckey draws a “long tail” of feline association from the cat as an Egyptian spirit and feral animal, to a familiar domestic pet and electronic “picture-in-air” - a figure that begins to have multiple images of itself. With the advent of its broadcast image Felix is transformed into what the artist calls “a manifold being”, a multiple and omnipresent force. At times somewhat overwhelmed by unveiling the mass of interconnected associations that the broadcast of Felix the Cat (and his long tail) seemingly put into action, Leckey touches on, amongst other things, the fluctuating curves of the stock market, the erotic allure of the phallic line and snaking cables of digital information. Leckey ends his lecture by demarking nine lives of Felix’s evolution.
The ‘evolution of Felix’ reaches a grand finale in Leckey’s recent commission for the Arts Council Collection’s 70th anniversary ‘FEELINTHECAT’, (2016). Housed inside what at first appears to be a geodesic dome is a film work of Leckey in a Felix costume. The dome on closer inspection takes the shape of Felix’s head. Entering the head of the iconic cat, we view the playful movements of the artist in an animal suit digitally morph into an animated beast on all fours. In short, we witness a ‘becoming’ of Leckey and Felix, from cartoon costume to feral beast or beast to cartoon; from filmed figure to digitally animated form. Leaving the domed head and returning to the other works on show, the gallery installation begins to read as something of a shrine to the cartoon feline. Leckey’s works playfully paying iconographic testament to the associative powers of the anthropomorphic cat.
‘This Kolossal Kat, That Massive Mog’ is the first exhibition to have brought together Leckey’s Felix works. It is a seminal show that presents the playful tenacity of the artist’s practice and his continued relationship to the snaking associations of the “long black tail”. The layering of association finds a heightened resonance through the location of the Grundy Gallery itself. In close proximity to the Blackpool tower and the seafront strip of illuminations, the repeated image of Felix sits comfortably with the sea side resort’s own associations of mass entertainment, playful showmanship, a culture of frivolity and the lurking undertone of sexual abandon. As if the playful lick or flick of the tail might also come to figure the moulded tubing of illumination lights and the digital displays of gaming arcades and bars that scatter the seafront promenade.