“Things that gather cannot be thrown at you like objects.”
-Bruno Latour, 2004¹
I published my last post on boxes from the Nottingham Contemporary café. Beyond being a rather banal statement on what still strikes me as the remarkable portability of today’s technological age, I wanted to begin this post with that admission because moments after, I walked upstairs to see The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, an Hayward Touring exhibition curated by the British artist Mark Leckey. These two activities – writing a blog post, and one specifically about the unsettling and categorically suspect presence of boxes as sculptural things, and seeing an exhibition described by Leckey as a Tumblr page or Google Image search come to life – became, in my mind, perfect complements. At the heart of the exhibition is a profound questioning of what it means to bring something “to life,” the ways that technology animates seemingly inanimate things, and how things shape our understanding of the world in which we live.
Mark Leckey won the Turner Prize in 2008 and is primarily known for his video pieces, but he often speaks of his practice in sculptural terms, as an artist whose primary concern lies in objects and their power as things. During a lecture at the University of Nottingham-Trent shortly after the exhibition opened, Leckey frequently spoke of totems and fetishes, of technology as a tool of transformation that constantly shifts things between registers, between two and three dimensions. He described a simultaneous fascination and terror in how “smart objects” – the iPhone that “talked” with my computer giving it internet access on a cafe patio, for example, or iPads that can control the climate of your home from across the world – are irreversibly changing how we interact with and understand not just the virtual world but the physical world. These objects will, and already have, altered how we think about things, especially sculptural things.
The wonderfully diverse array of things that occupy the multiple rooms of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, speak to these changes. There are framed maps, digital projections, advertisements, x-rays, concept car models, large-scale cut-outs of fine art reproductions, medieval religious reliquaries, and kitschy knickknacks. Fine art paintings, prints, and drawings from the likes of James Rosenquist, William Blake, and Claes Oldenburg, mingle with objects not usual seen in the refined spaces of the art museum: A Soviet cosmonaut suit made for a dog, a replica from 1965 of Sputnik, and action figures. What at first glance may seem like an incongruous visual (and auditory) cacophony, slowly reveals powerful connections between the bodily and the mechanical, the primitive past and the technological future, and the wild animism and cultivated, humanist order structuring contemporary life.
One of my favorite objects in the exhibition was a Wurlitzer drum machine from the 1960s, placed within a cluster of other pieces of technology that have already become relics. It emitted a low-grade, static-y beat that permeated the entire space, often clashing with the noises from other video and audial elements. I loved how even when I was not looking at it, it followed me around the galleries, making its presence known. The Wurlitzer is a beautiful, complicated sculptural thing in its own right – a monolith that would look at home next to a row of Donald Judd boxes. This conflation – of high art objects and quotidian things – is one of the best aspects of the exhibition. Their parallel installation did not feel like some heavy-handed statement on the artificial boundaries art history places between functional and non-functional things, but a dialogue between them that made me reevaluate each equally.
Seeing a gigantic inflatable Felix the Cat next to a Ancient Egyptian canopic jar and Woofer speakers by the Dutch designer Sander Mulder, for example, did not prompt questions of their art historical categorization but what these things were saying to each other; how seeing one in the context of the other made me see it in a wholly new way. As Leckey himself remarked, his intention was not to devalue “proper artworks” or make a claim that they are just like everything else, but to emphasize the resonance between things. He states:
“I’d like to be as irrelevant as possible with them, as disrespectful as possible with them, as disrespectful as possible. But I’m also enamoured by all of those objects – artwork or not – and on a scale of value there are some that I really love and some that I’m less enamoured by. What excites me is the idea of treating them badly, and not respecting them as individuals that are presented as discreet objects that have their own aura, in a traditional white cube.”²
I still have reservations concerning the concept of artist-curated exhibitions and the broader trend in recent museological practice that equates curation with creation, but I can say wholeheartedly that Leckey’s The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things is worthy of a viewing. The show is smart, clever, and humorous – in short, it is unabashedly enjoyable, even dare I say, fun. I literally laughed aloud at certain points, and loved the sensation of never knowing what would be around the next corner. The exhibition is irreverent in the best way possible, somehow eschewing cynicism while offering something quite profound. It is serious without taking anything too seriously. Things are not presented not as lone, autonomous objects of inherent value, but gathered, and it is in the gathering that we realize the immense power of collectivity and interconnectivity.
The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things is on view at the Nottingham Contemporary through 30 June 2013. The exhibition’s final stop is at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexill on Sea from 13 July-20 October 2013.
1 Bruno Latour, "Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern." Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (Winter 2004), 237. 2 Mark Leckey as quoted in an interview with Kathy Noble, Head of Exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary. Gallery pamphlet, 2013.