Leckey's collection spans three rooms. Each room has a general ontological theme: machine, animal, monster. The philosophical bent behind Leckey's show is deeply indebted to the field of OOO, which asks that we think about objects not as inanimate things for-us, but as beings with their own private lives. After visiting the show, the question that I am left with is this: is it possible to curate objects as objects, or can they only be curated as human art? As I moved through Leckey's three rooms, I saw the curation technique become more experimental and the curator less present.
The first room contains a panel by Leckey that describes what the show is about. The art-objects are spread around in the usual way, placed evenly around the walls and floor of the room. The patrons seem to know where to stand, how to move around the space. A couple accidentally step into a grey circle painted on the floor around two car engines that have been encrusted in sickly blue paint and a bespectacled gallery worker hurries toward them, miming as she is polite-half-running that they step back. They do, instantly, full of stage-whispered apologies. DO NOT TOUCH THE ART. A middle-aged man stands with his hands clasped behind his back, gently rocking on his heels as he appraises four tires that have been arranged standing on the floor with a thick gallery-issued rope staking out their artistic coordinates and preventing him from getting closer, from smelling the rubber or licking the gleaming hub-caps. THIS IS ART. The man watching the tires is a painting of a man-looking-at-art. OBSERVING SYSTEMS.
In the little booklet that waits for you upon your entrance into the show there is an interview with Leckey typed in something that looks like Times New Roman. Everyone is holding their booklets open with one hand between fore- and little finger. Leckey says that the show was inspired by Norbert Wiener and his famous book about cybernetics, which refuses ontological distinctiveness and says that everything works together as an interlocking system. For Wiener, a man using a gun is not two discrete beings (the human subject and inanimate object) but a single system. The man is becoming-gun. Leckey is interested in these weird, ontology-exploding hybrids that span artistic mediums and historical eras, and the show is full of them - a mandrake root carved into a human figure, medieval paintings of centaurs, fictional robots and limb prostheses.
Kicking off the show with the machine-room and cybernetics is telling, as Leckey repeatedly stresses the role of technology in producing these ontologically disruptive hybrids. "Objects communicate with us. We live in a world of talking fridges and websites that uncannily anticipate our desires," says the Dierctor of the Nottingham Contemporary. Well, yes. However, where the show became more interesting for me was in the moments where instead of showing technology as producing hybrids and animating objects, Leckey implied that technology only helps to make visible the existing animated lives of these objects. Showing us objects animated by technology implies that animated object-being is a new advance brought about by scientific progress and human rationality. This is misleading. As Leckey's exhibit advances, Science stops working and mysticism takes over: objects are not newly animated through new advances in science, grotesque Frankenstein's monsters, but were always animated, living secret lives of their own.
The second room is sort of loosely grouped around Nature and animals. There is a gigantic inflatable Felix the cat, a vagina with a man's foot bursting forth from it, a freestanding cardboard cutout of a Max Ernst elephant. The picture at the top of this post is from this room. Leckey, instead of spacing objects around the room to emphasize their individual value as a piece of art on display, arranges them as a chunky clunky collage - they are cut and paste surrealist art pieces made material. The middle aged man-appraising-art walks up to the first tableau and visibly panics. He tries rocking back on his heels again, but he doesn't know whether to look at the whole thing (as a system, becoming-collage), or as a set of individual objects arranged in a single display case without a display case. If it is the first one, then he has to start thinking about the wall as a large painting. If it is the latter, it was probably best to think about this room not as a gallery but as a museum.
And what was to be made of the three heads that punctuated the top row of the collection - a medieval gargoyle, William Blake's death-mask with electrodes hanging from it, a decapitated cyberman mask from the cult classic Doctor Who. Am I, thinks the middle-aged man (who incidentally looks rather like an anthropology professor), supposed to consider these three objects as equivalent? Do I buy the cyberman mask and display it in my home next to my medieval trinkets? Leckey has clearly read his Latour and his Harman; in the opening panel he refers to his project as a "Parliament" of things, and you can buy Toward Speculative Realism in the gallery gift shop, as if it were a book of Monet postcards. It was in this moment observing the anthropology professor observing the gargoyle/death-mask/cyberman triptych that I felt Harman and OOO in the room. The objects sit on their podiums, side by symmetrical side, and look at you as you walk in. How do I think about the gargoyle? Do I think about it as an object redolent with human history, as part of a disappeared building in a disappeared cityscape, as a symbol of medieval religious conviction, as an ontologically hybridized face - man/monster/demon? Who should I ask? Does the gallery worker know? Maybe Leckey says somewhere what his intentions were in putting these faces side by side... I should check my tiny booklet.
Where is the art here? Asking this question gets us to another, more pressing one: where is the object? Because Leckey is a Turner-prize winning artist, we expect his curation to hold some kind of artistic content as a whole. By refusing to artistically annotate the objects, Leckey leaves the patron to discern art somewhere between the objects. His Turner-prize-winning-stamp must shine through in the juxtaposition and relation of objects. Like a collage or surrealist cut-up, it is in the spaces between objects that human meaning or beauty or truth or magic occurs. Of course, OOO (and I) would resist this idea, the over-emphasis on relation works to obscure the object. If we look only for relation then we don't see the gargoyle and the death-mask and the cyberman, we just see the gargoyle/death-mask/cyberman. When we walk home we talk about the /// not the OOO.
It is naive (stupid) to think that Leckey has just left things there without ordering and organizing them. Harman would say that yes, Leckey's discourse is there, and yes - the anthropology professor's discourse is there too, and mine, and the couple's too. But it is naive (stupid?) again to think that just because these discourses are circulating, that the objects don't have a discourse of their own. They press up against each other, they have their own secret interactions, they are looking at you, too. And it is not a conversation or a relationship that we can understand. It's not Toy Story, where as soon as we leave the room the gargoyle jumps off his podium and soft shoe dances with the pottery vagina. And Leckey's show, although obsessed with networks and systems and relations, provides a space in which, for a moment, the object looks back at you with a disconcertingly solid unintelligibility. In this space, the gallery as an institutional space utterly breaks down - imagine if Duchamp hadn't sent in a urinal but just told a patron in passing that the light fixture was a piece of art, or the dust-mote in the corner, or the subtle hair-clip in that lady's do. Thinking about things as art is practice for thinking about things as objects.
The final room is under the blacklight, it is a dark Bataillain dream of monsters and headless stick figures and a sacked shape jumping up and down over and over again on HD. The anthropology professor isn't here. Weird voices call from soft, dark corners and a minotaur creeps along the back wall. There isn't a gallery worker in here. I feel like I may as well not be in here. The objects, they ignore me. Perhaps half an hour earlier I would have thought they danced for me. And I am reminded of a piece in Bataille which is terrifying and surreal and is about the dark dispossession of the self, the requirement that one hurls oneself into an abyss that at the last minute will folds outward as a passage into everything:
"I have often thought of the day when the birth of a man who would have his eyes very genuinely on the inside would at last be consecrated. His life would be like a long tunnel of phosphorescent furs and he would only have to stretch out in order to plunge into everything which he has in common with the rest of the world and which is atrociously incommunicable to us."