Mark Leckey

Mark Leckey, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, digital film, colour, sound, 15 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

Delving into the complexities of artistic evolution and cultural influence, Living Content’s interview with Mark Leckey reveals a journey through nostalgia, brand appropriation, and the shifting landscapes of creativity. Revisiting his renowned work 'Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore,' from 1999, the artist reflects on its genesis amid homesickness and rave culture's unacknowledged brilliance. Explored through the lens of subcultures and branding, the discussion unveils a transformation of consumer brands into personal totems within youth culture. The conversation evolves, touching upon the changing nature of subcultures, the animistic worldview, and the overwhelming anxiety tied to the evolution of technology and that of contemporary art-making. Ultimately, it culminates in a quest for the unfamiliar and estranged in art, seeking a sense of delight.

Mark Leckey (b. 1964, Birkenhead), is a contemporary artist working with a variety of media including film, sound, sculpture and performance. His work explores the relationship between popular culture and technology and explores the subjects of anxiety, class and nostalgia. In 2008 he won the Turner Prize for his exhibition Industrial Light and Magic. He has had numerous solo exhibitions including: Tate Britain, London (2019); MOMA PS1, New York (2016-17); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2015); the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2013); and the Serpentine Gallery, London (2011). He has participated in the Carnegie International (2013), the 55th Venice Biennale (2013), and the 8th Gwangju Biennial (2010). Leckey lives and works in London.

Issue №:

Living Content: Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999) reached cult status. I want to quote you on something you said in a past conversation: “people think Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore is about rave and all that, but it's a ghost film. It's quite bleak. It's not a celebration.” I'm curious: how do you see this work after so many years?

Mark Leckey:  It's impossible for me to have any distance on it, but, I think it does something very unusual that I can never repeat.

LC: I’m always curious about how artists’ feelings evolve towards such notable artwork that propelled their careers. Did you ever end up having mixed feelings towards it?

ML: Yeah, a little. But a long time ago: I made it over 20 years ago and I guess there were moments when I had the sense that there was nothing I could do that would ever be as successful as that was. It ended up being more productive than not. I made it after I’ve lived in America and returned to the UK. That period evoked all these strong feelings of homesickness and nostalgia. So it came out of that. To me, it's a ghost film: it's kind of haunted in a sort of slightly dismal way. It's not joyous although it was intended to be a recognition because, at the time, I felt like the creativity and intelligence of rave culture was unacknowledged.

That's very different now, of course. Now, there is no argument to be had anymore about the impact and the influence of raves. I don't hate it but it's a bit rinsed out for me. I also don't want to look to the past, I'm not a nostalgic person. Yet that kind of nostalgia, that I was beginning to feel at that point, is now a given condition within the 21st century: it’s always being recycled and exploited. I think I was just catching the beginning of that cycle. At the time, I thought it was my nostalgia, my history, or my lament, but I think it was a structure that was being built and I was just there at the foundation, as the foundations were being laid.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, digital film, colour, sound, 15 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.
Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, digital film, colour, sound, 15 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.
Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, digital film, colour, sound, 15 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

LC: It’s interesting to take a bit of distance from these concepts. In the same way, when I think of a work like O Magic Power of Bleakness, I can see how you're tapping into this kind of collective consciousness. You're using the structure of folktales and storytelling, combining it with the use of social media, and branding, looking at how these elements influence group mentality. In this work, it seems like they’re somehow organically evolving from each other. In the same sense, there’s this kind of continuity or cyclicality of looking from the future backward. I’m curious to hear you talk more about this: how do you tap into this kind of consciousness and how do you combine it further with social media, like TikTok, Instagram etc.?

ML : I’m always following fashion. Sometimes I feel a bit cringe looking back because the work is so connected to a specific time; sometimes I’m a little ahead of the current, but inevitably, I'm moving in the same direction culture is moving. I never find myself at odds with culture or with fashion. I think the folk thing partly has to do with what you said: whenever there's a kind of current propelled forward or accelerated, you're thrown back into the past. That past can either be within those 20 years, in retro-cycles, or it can be something more medieval. I say “medieval” in the sense that the byproduct that comes out of the magic of technology is sometimes a kind of irrational thinking or irrational fear. From conspiracy theories, magical thinking, or just a sense of not knowing your place in the world or not understanding the world. Feeling feudal, I think, is partly what this relationship with technology has produced in me, anyway. Sometimes it feels powerless and everything becomes incomprehensible. It's like I don't know how to understand the world anymore.

O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.
O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.
O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

LC:  So it is an attempt to make more sense of things?

ML: I guess the reason to make work is to try that, yes. And that's why I like using video because it's like a platform that you can inhabit with all these kinds of anxieties, doubts, and ideas. You can populate it with all these things. It allows me to stay with these things whilst also having a little distance. It’s a kind of exorcism where you can amplify these things and see them once they’re in a kind of exaggerated form.

LC: It's interesting. This video feels eerie, especially seeing it as a five-channel video installation. It feels like a cautionary story of some kind. 

You mentioned following fashion and I see a lot of brands referenced in your work. This is something that you’ve been referencing a lot in your practice throughout the years: fashion. How do you see this idea of branding in relation to subcultures? And how are you using it in your work today?

ML: I read this thing not long ago, where someone said that the subculture of the 20th century was all about consumption. We're all revolving around consumption, consumer brands, etcetera. And that now, the 21st century is about opinion. Instead of consumption, it's about opinion. I did think when I read that, that my idea of brands and the influence that they had on the culture I grew up with, is no longer particularly relevant or true. The title Fiorucci is essentially about a brand. It’s about this arch of a consumer product, that has been appropriated by the youth and turned into some kind of totem of their investment, right? So it becomes like this article of faith for them because they have chosen it. They've selected this thing and said ''We are going to value this thing based on our own kind of ritualistic sense''. 

That's what Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore means, right? It's like... These things that were sent to exploit you or, at least take your money, have been transformed and transferred into something that you own, right? You've taken some kind of ownership over it. I think things got a lot more complicated after that. I don't know. I can't speak to that anymore. 

When I depicted in O Magic Power of Bleakness, all the kids wearing North Face and Adidas - I referenced my nephew and all the kids from where I'm from, that still dress like that. They're all head to toe in black Nike or black North Face. They've got the hoods up, masked up, and they look like some kind of medieval postulants. They look like some kind of novice monks...

O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.
O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

LC: Beautiful fittings, by the way: I love the way the garments are adapted in the video.

ML: I designed them and then we got them made. They're all based on actual medieval peasant costumes. Now, there's a kind of space between art and fashion that is becoming more prominent, I'd say.

LC: Do you feel like there is a possibility of “hijacking” a brand’s identity via subculture? Or is the idea of “subculture” totally subdued to capital?

ML: I don't know what hijacking would mean anymore or selling out or any of those kinds of terms. They don't seem particularly concerning anymore, I think. For me, one of the things I find interesting about fashion is that if the art world can be very middle class (it’s very white, it's very monocultural) -  fashion isn't. Fashion is more open across classes, genders, and race; you know what I mean? It's more democratic in that sense. That, to me, seems the same as with music. Arts problems are kind of alone in that sense. So I think that it’s interesting when fashion moves towards art. Fashion crosses over with music in a way that it doesn't crosses over with art. The things that fashion likes, the things that music likes, I like. The thing I like in art is the esoteric. That's why I got involved in art. I like esoteric things; imaginings. Fashion and music are my culture. Art provides me with the esoteric. 

LC: Interesting... along the lines of the esoteric, folk tales, and magical creatures, I think you were referring to a different work, Prp4AShw, when you said that: "the more computed our environment becomes, the further back it returns us to our primitive past... to an animistic worldview where everything has a spirit." you continue: "All the objects in the world become more responsive, things that were once regarded as dumb become addressable, and that universal addressability - a network of things -- creates this enchanted landscape.” Do you think it’s still possible to adopt something along the lines of an animistic worldview with all the development around AI, Big Data, surveillance, etc?

ML: Listening to you read that back, it sounds like it comes from a much more optimistic place than I would say now. When I said that, I was kind of trying to imagine a potential future or sort of something that, for me, could be productive. You know what I was saying before about feeling feudal? I think part of that sense of feeling feudal is the idea that the human at the center of the world has been diminished. 

The idea of the animistic would mean something more to me now... I think I got the scale wrong. I was thinking of animistic in terms of objects, but I wasn't thinking of hyper-objects. And I think that an animistic world now is on a scale far greater than I was thinking of at that time. So I was still looking at animism from a very human scale and from a kind of privileged position in that sense. Now, I think that the animistic sense of the world is something more like the sublime. It's far greater than us and potentially renders us not necessarily insignificant, but rather far more reduced in our role.

So that's how I feel at the moment, but I don't know. I don't want to get into any future gazing. It seems a ludicrous thing to do. It seems impossible at the moment, except getting further into it in a very pessimistic way. 

O Magic Power of Bleakness: Under Under In, 2020, digital film, colour, sound, 16 min 22 sec. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

LC: Okay, we can take it on a bit of a different route. When you mentioned the sublime and this kind of overwhelming feeling of being or acknowledging what it means to be human, it made me think about your more recent work: Carry Me into the Wilderness. It feels like this video conveys a mystical feeling of self-transcendence. Guided by the sound, you’re carried through the feeling of being ecstatic to the point of being delirious and carries further to almost dematerializing the self. 

ML: Yeah! Atomized!

LC: Exactly. I thought it was really interesting that you used a 14th-century painting by Lorenzo Monaco: Saint Anthony in the Wilderness. How did the music and image come together in this work? What was the process of making this piece?

ML: Once the pandemic began, I stopped making work. I've got two little kids, and my partner was carrying on working. I couldn't make work. There was no time to make work, no space. But also, I didn't want to. I didn't feel compelled to do anything. I do a radio show on NTS, which is a station in London and I love doing that. That's all I was doing as a creative outlet during the pandemic: thinking about what I was going to put on the show and finding music. So because I was thinking more about music than making art, when I got asked to make a video that was going to go online, I made this video piece about a bus stop that came out of a sound loop. I made that video starting from this sample I liked. Similarly, Carry Me Into the Wilderness, was also a device to stop me from thinking about making art. For instance, now I'm working on a piece and I'm thinking about it as art, and I'm stuck, I'm frustrated. That's why Carry Me into the Wilderness gets so ecstatic. I just got lost in it through the music. That video, to me, is all about the pleasure of making something without being concerned about what it means or what I was trying to say. 

The best thought I've had about it is that when I go into that landscape - I don't know if that landscape is joyous or if it's poisonous. It is this idea of being free in the wilderness. Because I was making it through music, it was as if it was allowed to have that ambiguity or ambivalence or whatever uncertainty, in the way that I find very difficult to achieve in art now. 

When I’m making an artwork, I'm thinking of what its meaning is, how it's going to be read, and what its intention is, but I'm always trying to escape that critical voice in my head as I'm making something. I rarely do except for that one brief moment during lockdown when I made those two works. Now I'm back to making work and art-making is very anxiety-inducing. It always has been, but I think it's getting worse. I think it's very hard to make work out of any kind of state except for anxiety.

Carry Me into The Wilderness, 2022video 9:16, colour, sound, 6 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

LC: Why do you think that is?

ML: It's always answerable to the discourse. And you always know, in some sense, what the parameters of that are. So it's very hard to escape them. I think the politics of art-making is necessary, but it's another kind of engagement. It's a strange conflict. Whenever I do a talk, I always have this thing where I start with: “The art world both compels and repulses me.” - I think it's that, but it's ever-tightening. You enter into art-making to look for freedom. And, in a way, I come from an idea of art where you're looking for some modernist idea of sovereignty; this is what you're out to achieve in some respects, even if it's just a kind of fantasy of sovereignty. But, you know, that's impossible. All the reasons arrayed against sovereignty make equal sense. Maybe that's where you feel a bit crushed because it's like you want both or you don’t, but - regardless - you’re pulled in opposite directions: between the social and the liberatory kind of self, you know what I mean?

LC: Maybe that’s why it's so important to make work outside of an institutional or gallery system. I'm curious if you found any other ways of working outside of these structures altogether, that helped you throughout the years to get a bit of distance from constantly balancing this fairly exhausting affair, but also that helped you replenish some of your creative energy?

ML: Yes. I did a Summer school last year, and hopefully, two more are going to happen this year. And in these courses, I don't talk about art. I just talk about music and video making. So we don't talk about art at all. I'm not laying out any kind of path towards that.

LC: What was the most satisfying experience that you took away from doing this?

ML: I guess I was satisfied in the sense that it met my expectations. I don't know if that's a good way to be satisfied. Essentially, I just think people now, especially younger people, know how to manipulate image and sound. It's like a given: that’s what the course was about. It's just developing that ability. The digital is malleable. You can do what you like with it. That showed in the results when we finished the course. Everyone was able to produce something and what they produced was worth watching. It was valued. It was interesting. If you remove the label “art” from the equation, people make things. Art sometimes acts as an obstacle to that - a kind of anxiety about art making or anxiety that art isn't meant for you because of your background and history or whatever. So, you take that away and people can quite easily make interesting images, and think through images and objects. You know what I mean?

LC:  It sounds like important work! It seems like it’s necessary too, given the surging number of art schools that lead a lot of graduate students to a crippling anxiety of not knowing how to navigate the politics of a highly obscure art system while trying to make a living.

But then… what do you think good art is?

ML: Here's one thought I have actually. I think about this quite a lot. I think the art world has grown to such a scale that it needs to sort of federate. You know how, in terms of music, there are different genres or classifications? Art is no longer a narrow canon, so the idea of evaluating what “good” art is, is much more difficult these days.

Good art, to me, isn't just in a gallery. I always used to say it was about intention. Whatever the intent was that went into that thing, came back to you as the viewer. I guess I'm just talking about it more as a kind of energy that's invested in something, and then that is what returns to the viewer. 

I realized that there are things I'm looking for that are very particular in art, and when these both correspond with an idea of what I want and upset that thing at the same time, that's when I get most excited. So it's something unfamiliar, but it's something that I'm already looking for; something that's been estranged in some way. That's what hits my sweet spot. I'm like ''oh, you did this, but then you did that''. I'm delighted by it. I don't want to be educated by art or to be taught or to be edified in any way. I think I just want to be transported. At the same time, good art can do all these things simultaneously. All I want from art is to be delighted.

Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999, digital film, colour, sound, 15 min. Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz.

Interview by

Adriana Blidaru

Curator, writer, and founding editor of LC.