New York

View of “Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers,” 2016–17. From left: Felix Mask Portrait, 2016; Felix the Cat, 2013. Photo: Pablo Enriquez.

View of “Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers,” 2016–17. From left: Felix Mask Portrait, 2016; Felix the Cat, 2013. Photo: Pablo Enriquez.

Mark Leckey

MoMA PS1

View of “Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers,” 2016–17. From left: Felix Mask Portrait, 2016; Felix the Cat, 2013. Photo: Pablo Enriquez.

HERE’S THE BAIT AND SWITCH: Each new technology that further isolates individuals first promises to connect them. It was film’s potential to organize collective perception that so excited Walter Benjamin: “The ancient truth expressed by Heraclitus, that those who are awake have a world in common while each sleeper has a world of his own, has been invalidated by film,” he wrote, “and less by depicting the dream world itself than by creating figures of collective dream, such as the globe-encircling Mickey Mouse.” Alone together in the darkened theater, the proletariat would commune with new totems.

Had Benjamin lived long enough to observe the rise of television, he might have switched out Mickey for Felix the Cat, whose image was the first ever broadcast electronically, at the NBC studios in 1928. Mark Leckey has long been fascinated with this origin story, perhaps because it so uncannily prefigures the present-day apotheosis of Grumpy Cat, Lil Bub, and other “globe-encircling” feline memes. In his lecture-performance In the Long Tail, 2009, Leckey hails Felix as a quasi-divine force—an angel, agent, and allegory for the internet’s atomization of mainstream culture into ever more precise demographics of desire. Felix’s likeness appears throughout “Containers and Their Drivers,” Leckey’s retrospective at MoMA PS1, most prominently as a giant inflatable, crammed into a corner gallery. Between Felix’s bulging legs lies a platter laden with coins and trinkets: offerings to the deity.

The work of Mark Leckey is both wildly original and unmistakably British. At their headiest, his installations of cardboard cutouts, LED screens, video projections, and 3-D-printed replicas conjure the serendipitous sublime of infinite open tabs on a web browser. Simultaneously, they recall the Independent Group’s iconic genre-scrambling kiosks of mid-1950s mass media. A retrospective of Leckey’s prodigious output is thus more an exhibition of exhibitions—a characteristic that MoMA PS1’s idiosyncratic architecture emphasizes. Following a precedent established by the last major monographic show mounted in the building, “Mike Kelley” (2013–14), curators Peter Eleey and Stuart Comer have placed each body of work in the space best suited to displaying it, rather than in any order that traces a theme, constructs an argument, or follows a progression. On the third floor, Leckey’s breakout video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, plays across the hall from his most recent project, Dream English Kid, 2016. Downstairs, a row of smaller rooms features several videos and lecture-performances made in the interim, including Cinema-in-the-Round, 2006–2008, Concrete Vache, 2010, and Pearl Vision, 2012, and another suite of galleries showcases a version of “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things,” a multifaceted experiment in curating, digital distribution, and on-site production that Leckey staged across several venues (including a project in Artforum) over a six-year period. Any visitor who consults wall labels to understand Leckey’s chronology will be stymied by date listings such as 1996–2014 (for Are You Waiting?) or 1999–2002–2010 (for Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore with Sound System). If most retrospectives adhere to the linear logic of a printed book, then “Containers and Their Drivers” approximates the sprawling structure of an unevenly updated website.

The lack of discernible historical development in “Containers” is regrettable because Leckey is, at this point, a historical figure. In the UK, his career tracks (and, to an extent, paces) the transition from the calibrated outrages of the YBAs to the associatively linked objects and chatty avatars of Ryan Gander, Ed Atkins, and Helen Marten. He is constitutive of an era that we might now periodize, however wryly, as “pre-Brexit,” and in our present moment of accumulated aftermaths, his work is of particular salience. Throughout “Containers,” Leckey attempts to link the emerging trends of information technology to the vernacular traditions of his English working-class roots—negotiating, in effect, between the global and the local. The footage for Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore comes from amateur videotapes of England’s reggae, dancehall, and post-punk clubs, out of which Leckey culled scenes of pseudoreligious collective effervescence. For Dream English Kid, 1964–1999 AD, 2015, Leckey amassed YouTube clips and other records of concerts and major events he witnessed in his youth, merging personal memory and public document in a manner that recalls how the replicants in Blade Runner gather photographs to shore up their sense of self.

In short, Leckey is trying to reverse the bait and switch, to locate new social bonds through the very apparatuses that have attenuated the old ones. Troublingly enough, his most formally cogent fusions of technology and vernacular derive their power from atavisms. His GreenScreenRefrigerator, 2010–16, and sound-system sculptures are all electronic hardware fashioned into altars. “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things” invokes medieval reliquaries to make sense of “smart” appliances. And of course, there’s Felix, the internet incarnate. Leckey seems to have already known what many US-election postmortems about fake news and Facebook feeds now tell us: Social media might have once appeared to be a tool for uniting the multitude against Empire, but it’s far better equipped to pit tribe against tribe. The historical question raised by “Containers and Their Drivers” is whether the fascination with the internet that Leckey and countless other artists have pursued for the past fifteen years amounts to what Benjamin once described as experiencing one’s own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. For his part, Leckey would likely posit that Felix the Cat possesses some etymological relation to the felix culpa, the theological doctrine that catastrophes can be fortunate, because they open onto the possibility of redemption.

“Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers” is on view through Mar. 5.

Colby Chamberlain is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor of Triple Canopy.

View Mark Leckey’s artist project “The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things” (September 2010).