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Unit 24 gallery, based in a functioning drycleaners behind Tate Modern, has recently emerged as an offbeat, project-based alternative to its grander neighbour. Last month the gallery played host to a packed-out lecture by video artist Mark Leckey in which he mused, in signature freeform style, on the notion of ‘touch’ in film and painting.
In a provocative but entertainingly broad discourse, Leckey (who won the 2008 Turner Prize for an elaborate exploration on the nature of film in popular culture) questioned the relevance and functions of painting in comparison with video art. He described how his own hands have become defunct, and suggested that his manual dexterity has been supplanted by video’s ability to apprehend things almost physically. Video, he claimed, has become comparable to painting as a “medium of touch, gesture and sensation”.
Leckey argued that painting, by contrast, is limited by what it can’t do – by not being part of the virtual or “immaterial” world that we inhabit. He moreover criticised the perversity of painting as something inherently “existential” and inward-looking, “about itself, its own traditions and histories” – drawing a hilarious parallel with Jazz music or a fringe society like the Campaign for Real Ale. In Leckey’s view, we are moving as a society towards aggregate efforts and endeavours, in the context of which painting is hopelessly individual.
Leckey’s politically-couched claims tapped into a well-worn antipathy to painting that dates from the 1970s and which may be compared to the ubiquitous ‘death of the novel’ mantra. Self-reflexivity or what he called painting’s perverse “existentialism” occur as much in video art as in painting. These qualities can also surely be defined as virtues just as much as limitations.
Opportunely, at the time of the lecture Unit 24 was displaying a series of ‘paintings about painting’ – pastiches of famous works in the Tate made by Harry Pye and Jasper Joffe. Titled ‘Harry and Jasper’s Tate Modern’, the display was divided into a series of ‘rooms’ analogous to Tate Modern’s themed zones. The pair’s doggerel versions of David Hockney, Lucien Freud, John Currin et alia on one level bore out Leckey’s claims about painting’s self-referentiality. But at the same time they attested the medium’s eloquence and expressiveness, amounting to witty and self-deprecating meditations on the ‘anxiety of influence’.
Leckey proceeded to consider the way in which “grasp” inheres in the very etymology of the word “digital”; he proposed that video serves as a means of “grok” – a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land to denote immersive recognition and apprehension. Leckey recently judged the annual New Contemporaries competition for art school graduates, and as illustrations of this concept of digital grok he played two finalists’ video works. The first, by French filmmaker Laure Provost, emphasised the “somatic or psychosomatic” effect of objects (for example, a damp sock) filmed intently in tight spaces. The second was clip from Ed Atkins’s (another winner) more psychedelic video The Scent, which fixed meditatively on a Thai Durian fruit.
The talk ended on a characteristically tangential note, with a preview of a new video inspired by the invention of ‘intelligent’ fridges which monitor their own contents. Hovering in front of a green screen, a fridge spoke to itself in an electronically warped voice. Comparing itself frenetically with other appliances in a way that strangely echoed and encapsulated Leckey’s meandering, comparative approach both as a lecturer and as an artist.
‘THREADS: Gioj De Marco, Pawel Wocial and Linas Domarackas’ opens at Unite 24 on 3rd March.