View of “Mark Leckey: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things,” 2013. Photo: Andy Keate.

View of “Mark Leckey: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things,” 2013. Photo: Andy Keate.

Mark Leckey

View of “Mark Leckey: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things,” 2013. Photo: Andy Keate.

WE DON'T NEED GOOGLE GLASS to remind us that Max Weber’s diagnosis of the modern age as charcterized by the “disenchantment of the world” no longer holds true. One refreshing feature of the show recently curated at Bluecoat by artist Mark Leckey was his attention, precisely, to enchantment: to a dialectical understanding of the Enlightenment’s legacy, which allowed him to relate technological advances to older lineages of emotion and desire, rationality to irrationality. As Leckey says in the wall text at the exhibition’s entrance, “As it seems to me, the further technology evolves the more our minds devolve back to the imaginings of our superstitious past. Call it an animistic future or techno-atavism.” This is not Vorsprung but Rücksprung durch Technik, using technology to look back rather than relentlessly move forward.

Like the artist’s project Leckey devised for this magazine in 2010, with which it shares the title “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things,” the exhibition is a Wunderkammer of art and non-art objects from various historical epochs and geographies, devoted to the idea of such things speaking to one another across time and space. Leckey offers two hands as the center of his exhibition: one, borrowed from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is a medieval sculpture of a hand containing the relics of a saint, the other a prosthetic hand made by Touch Bionics in 2012. If curating through formal similarities often flattens the effect an object might have were it considered independently, here the similarities are part of the argument: This leveling is posited as a consequence of the technologization of everyday life, in which computers, cell phones, and the like have accustomed us to objects that all “appear to communicate with us.”

Fittingly, then, one section of the show deals with animals. Here, among other objects, a mummified Egyptian cat is set alongside a dog-shaped speaker by the Dutch designer Sander Mulder and a cat photographed against a green screen by Elad Lassry. In another section, the many-breasted Louise Bourgeois sculpture Nature Study, 1984/2001, is installed opposite a light box displaying an engraving of William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea, ca. 1819–20, depicting a muscular, anthropomorphic flea. A gallery almost completely devoted to cars features Alex Hubbard’s video of a Ford Tempo conceived as a moving painting, Annotated Plans for an Evacuation, 2010, and a clay model by Nissan. Many of the objects on view are fascinating in themselves—Miroslav Tichý’s camera, a jerry-rigged contraption built using a thread spool and an elastic strap; a reproduction of Jakob Mohr’s drawing Beweiße (Proofs), ca. 1910, in which human figures attract lines of a force; or the life-size replica of Sputnik, here suspended above viewers’ heads in the corridor.

All this adds up to a radical stance against the idea of the autonomous object, but what happens when you replace it with an “Internet of things”? The underlying premise that technology is creating a shift in our relationship to objects (including those of art) is surely correct. Yet in equating the fetishistic qualities of the technological object, the religious object, and the art object, Leckey does not do away with fetishism; he merely converts it into a pervasive animism.

From this perspective, we should not underestimate the strain of mysticism in Leckey’s practice, from the threnody to rave culture embedded in the 1999 video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, to the open-eyed, and open-ended, wonder driving the TED-style 2009 lecture-performance Mark Leckey in the Long Tail. The starting point of the latter was Felix the Cat—the first image transmitted on television—whom Leckey has described as embodying “the magical properties of technology.” Felix features in this exhibition, too, in an enormous inflatable version, implying that the show itself should be seen as an artwork. Indeed, Leckey describes it as “a work of fiction”—“a non-realist, anti-realist, magic-realist, speculative, slipstream fiction, a sort of sci-fi show.”

Leckey’s interpretation of our networked world may in fact be one step ahead: His show is literally set in the future. It presents “a world beyond tomorrow, when every ordinary, unthinking object . . . becomes an active participant in the Great Connection.” He speaks of the exhibition as an “inflation or amplification of the way the world appears to me now, a shape of ‘things’ to come.” The fanciful style of the wall text and the comments accompanying the images in the catalogue are further signs that the enterprise is more invested in poetic fantasy than in theoretical rigor. Combine this bent with Leckey’s interpretation of the lineages of Surrealism and practices of “artistic research,” and you end up with the artist as celebrant of a neo-pagan recoding of so-called technological progress that directly connects medieval reliquaries to prosthetic engineering. And so even as his revanchist choir of objects reclaims the superstitious, it does not fully sweep aside the notion of rational progress, instead folding it into the new “universal” of his title.

One danger of Leckey’s approach is that it makes the objects on view interchangeable ciphers: If everything is equally dumb and addressable, then a single object cannot really tell the particulars of its own story. The “universal” reduces vastly different objects and categories of work to the status of the JPEG. Leckey attempts to recoup the reductive violence of this act by infusing everything in the exhibition with animist magic. Arguments against animism aside, there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of such an endeavor—not least that the propagandistic myth of technology’s emancipatory, transformative, and redemptive power is already peddled daily by the likes of Apple and Google. Still, thinking about the effects of technological changes on relations between humans and objects (and both with themselves) is a valuable and important task, as old assumptions—the boundaried subject among them—become increasingly untenable. And more than Leckey would probably care to admit, the show’s faith in magic is close to a faith in art, a declaration of the importance of the ways in which a culture uses objects (and, indeed, exhibitions) to structure and understand the world.

“The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things” is currently on view (through June 30) at Nottingham Contemporary, UK; travels to the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, UK, July 13–Oct. 20.

Alexander Scrimgeour is a writer, translator, and editor based in London.