“I’m trying to rid myself of the past” – turner prize-winning artist mark leckey discusses his new exhibition
We spoke to the man who made Fiorucci hardcore about growing up, realising your personal history is being overwritten by the digital collective memory, letting the past go, and yes, even the return of the iconic brand.
still from dream english kid
Mark Leckey's most recent film work Dream English Kid, is a swirling montage of the 60s. Stuffed full of the decade's greatest hits; The Beatles, the space race, cold war paranoia, Liverpool, youth culture, nostalgia, the post-war consensus, working class utopias, possibilities, hope. But it is strictly not a straightforward homage to a golden age. Dream English Kid is filled with a kind of mourning, as all such nostalgic exercises and exorcisms are. The past, itsuggests, is ever present and stifling and even if it's exciting it is also an albatross around your neck. It's exactly those contradictions that have always attracted Mark to make work that explores the rituals and symbolisms and collective hallucinations of our past.
Dream English Kid is also a gripping, psychedelic, personal cinematic-virtuoso journey; it's a portrait of the artist as a stream of YouTube embeds. It's the story of a life told through found footage. It stretches from 1964, the year Mark was born, to 1999, the year he released his landmark film, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. In a way it's a kind of sister film to Fiorucci --which told a story of the universality of youth culture from northern soul to acid house, through found footage -- but Dream English Kid is bigger and bolder in its structure and form, and is more rooted in Mark's personal history.
The film began to take life when Mark found some footage on YouTube of a Joy Division concert he went to in Liverpool at the age of 15. He began to assemble a cinematic autobiography through memories irreparably entangled in film and TV and pop culture. The film asks: if even this little Joy Division gig I went to at 15 has found a way to exist half-alive for eternity on the internet, then who am I?
Among the avalanche of corrupted youth culture and cascading detritus of autobiography, one recurring motif throughout the film is a bridge. An actual real world bridge Mark vividly remembers from his childhood in Merseyside. And this bridge is the subject of Mark's latest exhibition, Affect Bridge Age Regression, at London's Cubitt Gallery. Featuring a scale model of the bridge, doused in the sodium orange of the street lights. It's trippy and a little uncanny and disconcerting.
At the opening Mark led a group chant to exorcise the bridge from his memory, a ritual to let the past go free, to try and collectively let it go. "Out demons out" the audience chanted, while Mark invoked everything from the Transport and General Workers Union, Barbara Castle, the navvies of M53, the new brutalism and the geometry of fear, to cleanse the bridge from his conscious.
The day after the opening we caught up with Mark at home to talk over the exhibition, the film, the bridge, and yes, even the return and relaunch of Fiorucci.
The bridge in the exhibition is a recurring motif in your recent film Dream English Kid.
Yeah, it's the actual model we used in Dream English Kid. I'd made this very expensive model for the film and didn't want it to go to waste. I wanted to find some use for it rather than leaving it in the shed. Well, I don't even have a shed, but you know.
It's a really interesting object to look at though, it's kind of uncanny, especially with the streetlights in the room.
I read this book recently, by Mark Fisher, The Weird And The Eerie. Eerie, he says, is something that appears to have agency that shouldn't have agency. It's something un-human that has some kind of power. I like that idea.
Is it an exact replica of this specific bridge from your childhood?
It's a specific bridge I used hang around when I was eight or nine. I was going to go and see it, but I couldn't bring myself to. I wanted something that was more like a platonic ideal of the bridge. All I did was look at it on Google Maps, which was quite frustrating. It's been almost documented, it's not fully there, you can't get that close. Maybe I'll go pay a visit, a little homage.
What is it about this bridge that's so symbolic for you. First in Dream English Kid, and now, this exhibition.
Well the idea of Dream English Kid was to make an autobiography, but with a little disbelief in the idea of the self. When I was making the film I wasn't convinced about my memories at all, I felt like they weren't concrete, that they didn't genuinely belong to me, that they'd become entangled with TV and cinema.
The bridge was there at the beginning because it was one of my earliest memories. Although I don't know how real the event was, once when I was down by the bridge with some mates I was convinced I saw like a pixie, or elf, or some kind of sprite lurking under the bridge. I believed it till I was about 21.
So that bridge, that event, imagined or real or hallucinatory -- too many sherbet dib dabs or whatever -- has always been there in my memory. It's also a great device if you're making a film, it's a bridge, it's very symbolic.
Then Helen from Cubitt asked us to do this show… well I make these things about the past to try and rid myself of them, I suppose, and this bridge, at this point, well it'd become something I needed to get out of my system.
There's a kind of Freudian, psychoanalytic thing to this too? Do you think the bridge says something about you?
It says that I'm a man struggling with his receding powers [laughs]. I don't know exactly!
Do you find it psychoanalytically helpful to make work that deals so heavily deal with your childhood and past?
No, not at all! It's a completely ineffectual process. Seriously, it's got to the point that I don't want to do it again. I didn't intend it to be therapeutic or cathartic, although the performance at the opening was -- that was a release. In a way I'm looking for objects to perform rituals around, because I like the ritual, but the bridge, my memoirs, my autobiography, that's just material for my work, something I can use, it's like an engine. The bridge is very specific, it's about a very specific time, a very specific class, a very specific place. It's also though, bigger, it's about the UK and Britain.
You begin by wanting to possess something and eventually it starts to posses you. You try to exorcise it but you're really the one who needs the exorcism.
You described that ritual as an exorcism, but it's a bit of an impossible thing, to free ourselves from our childhoods even if we want to. We really can't help but cling onto them.
Yeah, I know what you mean, but also the drive to make that work isn't about the past, but the fact that the past is so amplified. It's interesting that I could make a video memoir using found footage because of how available the archives are now.
The Joy Division concert from when you were 15?
It's strange right, how what you think is very specifically your life, this Joy Division concert, which wasn't some big TV event but it's on YouTube. It's there, it exists online. It's not just your memory now.
I find it very disconcerting. It's lived organically within my mind but there it was as this digital artefact. It kind of erodes and replaces your own memory. It has a very destabilising effect on who you are.
That film utilises these very big, cultural events; The Beatles on TV, the space race, the cold war, but this concert is so specific, and it's still found a way to exist online.
It's where the whole film began, the audience was so small I thought that maybe I could even hear myself within it. That enhancement of the past is what I'm interested in. That's what the ritual was about at the opening. If the past becomes too burdensome, too present, it won't move on. It lingers. The bridge becomes a zombie bridge, it won't die. It keeps on being revived. I want to get rid of that sense of… I dunno… you begin by wanting to possess something and eventually it starts to posses you. You try to exorcise the bridge but you're really the one who needs the exorcism.
Did you enjoy the process of putting together Dream English Kid?
I thought I'd enjoy it more than I did, and it does feel like I won't do anything like it again. Part of the reason I made it was, well after I made Fiorucci, I never wanted to do anything using nostalgic found footage again. It made me, I dunno, I didn't want to be…
Ha, yeah, I didn't want to be that guy. So I never touched it after Fiorucci. But there was enough time that had passed to go back to it. At the start I got really excited! But it wasn't as enjoyable as I thought it would be, and I found it quite mundane in a way. When I made Fiorucci the quest was a novelty, it was so hard to get the footage -- you had to write letters to people and ask for video tapes. With Dream English Kid, I did it all through Google and YouTube. It was too accessible and there wasn't a thrill in it.
On YouTube you can see exactly how many people have seen everything you're watching.
There's no ownership of it. It kind of depressed me, making it, I still can't quite work out the effect it had on me. I made it when I'd just turned 50, so there was some sense of the past having a moment then going into decline, or that I'm in decline [laughs]. It was a little shock.
So the performance at the opening. It was a bit like a rock concert, rather than an art show, which is a description I think you'd probably like.
Well I always wanted to be somewhere between an artist and a rock star. I don't find the gallery-going experience the most thrilling. As a means of disseminating information I always think music is more effective.
I always wanted to be somewhere between an artist and a rock star. I don't find the gallery-going experience the most thrilling -- as a means of disseminating information I always think music is more effective.
I liked the clash between this hippie-ish, utopian, 60s counter culture element of the ritual and the chant, but you know we're standing around a model of a bridge from the Wirral.
I think that's called pathos isn't it.
I was trying to remember some of the things you called out in the chant, and the only thing that stuck in my memory was Barbara Castle.
Everyone remembers Barbara Castle. As well as my past, the bridge sort of represents the post-war consensus, it represents the welfare state, and Barbara Castle was one of the architects of that with Clement Atlee and Nye Bevin. It was my way of paying my respects to the old labour socialists, to those dreamers.
I wasn't just trying to exorcise the bridge from myself, but exorcise some doubts I have about art, about what art works can do, what I can do, whether I should even bother. All the rest of it. It's a very constrained and constricted time to be making art, or possibly, now's the time, or maybe now is the time but not for me? It feels like things are changing in the art world. You can look back at the last 20 years of art and say, 'Oh yeah, that was the era of the art fair and not very good art.'
I don't really think of you as one of those big art fair artists. Apart from the big Felix The Cats you sometimes see around.
I dunno if that was a good idea? I did that, but I kind of retreated afterwards.
Do you think of your work as political, beyond the kind of cultural and social place it comes out of.
Within the art world, well I'm not quite an anomaly, but there aren't a lot of working class people involved are there? And there was always an element of that class thing to what I've done. But now? Well even it doesn't feel so relevant. Whatever politics is involved with what I do, well it feels a little minor, a little insignificant. There's bigger issues than just class now. Class is always there, but it's bound up with everything else too. I don't want to get entangled in the past again. I'm trying to rid myself of the past, that's what last night was about.
Did you see that Fiorucci is being relaunched. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore has a life and space and influence of its own, now, but even the past of the brand is coming back to you haunt you.
It feels weird doesn't it. The fashion world, well I know they like that video, it's the nature of it. But, because of how I work and what I do, I'm not in a position to claim my space on anything, especially Fiorucci, that would be cheeky. But I see the video reappearing in various guises. I would claim that I have helped the brand -- I'm a little like an unofficial brand ambassador, you know? So maybe a nice jacket or pair of jeans would be appreciated? If you know what I mean.
You've written a lifetime of headlines for anyone who might ever be doing an article about Fiorucci though.
I like that actually. They're saddled with that, and they can't get around it. What's great about that title is that it's so nostalgic, so hazy and evocative. It has a shimmer, the name Fiorucci, it was so cult, so vague. So to have it in Selfridges, on Bond Street, well maybe that'll kill the magic a little bit?
Text Felix Petty