Thursday, June 14, 2012


text for the Mark Leckey retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

There are a number of angles from which you could watch Mark Leckey's extraordinary Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. There's the anthropological view, which would see the footage of U.K. dance scenes as not so much subcultures as cults:  upsurges of the sacred within an otherwise brutally disenchanted and secularized post-industrial Britain, mystical youth tribes each organized around an array of fetishes, totems and rites. Such an analysis might zoom in on the parallels between Sufi whirling dervishes and the twirling dancers at Northern Soul temple Wigan Casino: the same defiance of gravity and weightless levitation above the mundane. Or it might note the messianic fervour of sayings like Northern Soul's "Keep the Faith" or rave's "Hardcore Will Never Die".   

Another potential prism for Fiorucci is subcultural theory, the Marxism-influenced school of "resistance through rituals" research that emerged in Britain during the 1970s. Here the focus would less be on transcendence than on what was being transcended:  the alchemical synergy of style, music and drugs  as a "solution" to the impasses of the class system, a jamming of symbolic codes that achieved a kind of victory over the fate otherwise laid out for  these working class youths, while at the same time diverting them from pursuing a real and permanent solution to their problems through political activity.

Other readings could draw draw on more recent and trendier theories.  For instance, a 
Lacan/Kristeva/Bataille analysis that would be more, well, analytic, in the Freudian sense, drawing on  on notions like "drive" and the "acephalic" in order to draw out the elements of repetition and regression in these drugs-and-dance cults, with their fixated trances and autistic-seeming bodily movements of rocking, shaking and twitching.   Or perhaps a cybernetic approach, influenced equally by Deleuze & Guattari, Brian Eno, and Kodwo Eshun,  and examining these subcultures in terms of machinic energy, the feedback loops of "scenius", the generation of posthuman intensities, and so forth. 

All these angles have their strengths and virtues;  all make visible certain aspects of Northern Soul, the Casuals, and Hardcore Rave (the three separate but linked subcultures that Fiorucci works with) while inevitably obscuring others.    My own reading would probably touch on all of these already mentioned at various points but would betray a pronounced slant towards paradox,   looking at the way these cults are dedicated to beauty and elegance yet so often produce grotesquerie and indignity, or at how these movements based around perpetual motion seem to find their truest essence in moments of stasis, frozen poses, tableaux. I expect that I would find myself drawn irresistibly towards oxymoronic formulations:  the dance subculture as an exit that becomes a dead end,  offering transcendence that turns into a trap, achieving a triumph that is simultaneously a form of defeat. And so forth...

But there's something a little too neat and tidy about these formulations...  a faint taint of smugness, which may well be unavoidable but still feels inadequate.  All these different ways of dissecting/contextualizing/ historicizing the strange subcultural blooms of a Britain that has disappeared never to return....   all of them, however well-intended,  serve ultimately to explain away and  domesticate these unassimilable phenomena. In so far as they successfully translate these cults into other terms (the jargons of particular discourses and disciplines) such readings deflect you from the singular power of Leckey's artwork: its reality, the fact that it is made almost entirely of salvaged documentary footage.  Now obviously the material has been processed: it's  been selected out of a much larger mass, it's been juxtaposed and sequenced  and altered in various ways (mostly within the domain of time and speed--slowing down, freeze-framing). The footage fragments have also been severed from whatever original audio track they possessed and given a new one (a remarkable piece of sound art in its own right).  But despite this working up of the material, in a certain crucial way the ultimate effect is of an artist who doesn't get in the way of the raw material, out of respect.  What comes across, overwhelmingly, is the palpable reality of what you are looking at, in all its absurdity, monstrosity and glory.  There is an opacity to the found material, an insistent but mute materiality:  limb-dislocating contortions, foetus-pale flesh, eyes vacant in trance or stiletto-sharp with vigilant pride,  maniacal smiles that split apart the dead grey mask of  English "mustn't grumble" mundanity, faces disfigured with bliss... 

At times, the sensation of watching Fiorucci borders on invasive: obscene not in the porno sense (staged, graphic, every detail exposed by the bright light) but obscene as in the more murky and partial view of the peeping tom or eavesdropper.  It can feel, at times, a little like what looking at videos covertly taken of people masturbating might look like: their expressions and sounds and fantasy murmurings.  You sometimes think: this should really never have been filmed, these moments should really never have been captured, these are secrets that should really never have been shown. 

Because all this really happened. This is how some  young people actually spent their time, this is the thing to which they devoted  all their energy and money and passion and life-force.  Mark Leckey has pieced together a kind of shrine made up of sacred relics, fragments of nights that the participants may barely remember.   Image debris from a time in their lives that they might conceivably regret, for any number of reasons, or, perhaps worse, might regret because that time is long gone, is passed and past. 

What you are witnessing--what Mark Leckey is re-presenting here almost without comment-- is a collection of what may have been the best moments from a number of young British lives in the last three decades of the 20th Century.  Their finest hour.

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