The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things
Curated by Mark Leckey
27 April - 30 June 2013
Review by Anneka French
‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ at Nottingham Contemporary draws together artworks and objects from disparate cultures and histories into a networked collection. The latest in a line of Hayward Touring artist-curated exhibitions, this idiosyncratic presentation devised by Mark Leckey investigates how technology has transformed perceptions of and relationships to material objects within an increasingly virtual world. Leckey’s exhibition proposes that this shift signals a return to a more ancient, superstitious mind-set, with a restored emphasis on the totemic and animist potential of the object.
Leckey’s curatorial vision is articulated through the model of a pseudo museum collection. His approach appears intuitive, gathering objects from the broadest of arenas to make visceral connections, almost as if the exhibition has been curated by dint of a Google image search. A wall-protrusion by Martin Creed, a Soviet canine space-suit, a collage of ‘googly eyes’ by young artist Andy Holden, a child’s action figure, a mummified cat and a solar panel: all have a niche role and an equivalent value within Leckey’s meticulously democratic system. As each object is absorbed into his thematically presented wunderkammer, a series of conglomerate or super-artworks are created. The most striking of these incorporates an enormous God-like inflatable of Felix the Cat which fills the height of the gallery. In front, plinths holding a canopic jar, a beeswax vase and a tin of cat food are positioned. The layering of objects and symbols builds something startlingly new and complex with its own unique context.
The ‘dumb things’ of the exhibition’s title are afforded a sense of animation through sound, movement, lighting and the establishment of visual connections to produce a kind of interactive feedback loop with the viewer. Florian Hecker’s electro-acoustic sound piece ‘Chimerization’ (2012) is notably effective in animating the darkened exhibition section that houses objects and artworks related to legendary monsters and science-fiction fantasies. Hecker’s work builds a sound-scape, which, in conjunction with the room’s glowing ultra violet light, enables other objects to supernaturally surpass their own materiality. In an adjacent room, against an amplifying field of high-key colour, the interior of a Wurlitzer machine hums and revolves, apparently operating under its own volition. Explicit visual connections between objects further heighten their animist potential, the best example being the carved stone head ‘Singing Gargoyle’ (circa 1200), shown side by side with a replica of William Blake’s death mask (with electrodes attached) and a Cyberman helmet from ‘Doctor Who.’ On viewing these three objects it seems perfectly plausible that they might communicate and interact with one another, and Leckey’s wryly constructed triptych forges an engaging relationship between wildly disparate objects. The exhibition makes cross-room connections also, for instance the contemporary headless-dog woofer design whose form recalls that of Louise Bourgeois’ hybridised sculpture ‘NATURE STUDY’ 1984 (2001). These connections make the whole display readable as one endlessly multi-faceted work which the viewer animates visually and conceptually by moving through the space.
This exhibition comprises a body of artistic research that references the cross-disciplinary field of cybernetics by exploring the constraints and possibilities of physical and cogitative systems. The term ‘addressability’ refers to the location and identification of specific elements within a network, in this case Leckey’s very personal system of ordering the world. His previous work ‘In the Long Tail’ (2009) took viewers through a performative lecture on how increased digitisation has enabled objects to be freed from their physical boundaries, achieving far greater communication and distribution in the virtual world. The artist uses this argument as an extended metaphor to describe the potential of the internet for its users to be both producer and consumer of their own online content, and has described his research for this exhibition in such terms.
Ideologically, the selected objects were chosen for their potential to, ‘transform, or transcend their object-hood.’ The mutable nature of art in relation to other objects is addressed in the exhibition. As both artist and curator, Leckey has transformed objects by placing found items on plinths or mounted to gallery walls as quasi-readymades. This act at once signifies something beyond the objects’ immediate materiality while also underscoring it. Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘aura’ is an evident point of reference for the inclusion of art reproductions and a virtual rendering of part of the exhibition that is displayed within the exhibition itself. Furthermore, Leckey has selected art that re-frames and re-materialises existing artworks such as his own digital film ‘Made in ‘Eaven’ (2004) and Jonathan Monk’s ‘Deflated Sculpture V’ (2009). Both derive from and re-interpret Jeff Koons’ iconic stainless steel sculpture ‘Rabbit’ (1986). Elsewhere, the otherworldly potential of objects such as the mandrake root or the West African sacrificial altar known as a Boli is explored. Juxtaposed with other objects these make the exhibition into something far greater than the sum of its component parts. A particularly poignant relationship is formed in the display of a thirteenth-century silver hand reliquary thought to contain the bones of a saint whose touch could bring spiritual healing, alongside the cutting-edge ‘I-Limb Ultra’ bionic prosthetic hand. Leckey’s self-confessed personal totem is the image of Felix the Cat, a motif which reoccurs throughout his practice. He describes the discovery of an archival photograph of a Felix doll being transmitted as the first tele-visually broadcast image as ‘magical.’ The transubstantiation of this object from the material to the virtual becomes an analogy for the metamorphic processes inherent within this exhibition. What these tokens of belief signify is central to the viewer’s understanding of the objects as material things that transcend their fixed form to become simultaneously immaterial.
‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ constitutes an assembled network of visual and conceptual connections between heterogeneous objects and ideas, at once curiously selected and perfectly balanced by the artist-curator. It is a fascinating, absorbing and ambitious exhibition, and a reminder that the world is a matrix where everything is connected to everything else in time and space. It is in the discovery and acknowledgement of this essential truth that the power of the exhibition lies.