Curated by Mark Leckey as part of the Hayward Touring series of artist-curated exhibitions, ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ takes its title from a concept in computing that refers to the possibility of a network of objects communicating with each other like sentient agents. The show speculates that this cybernetic horizon, which in 1999 Kevin Ashton christened the Internet of Things, may be approaching. A mesmerizing assemblage of artefacts from different epochs and places, the exhibition – which tours to Nottingham Contemporary and the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill – follows the cumulative logic of the web, while also reflecting Leckey’s distinctive approach to montage and found footage. Embalmed animals, prosthetic heads, machine parts, sound systems and digital avatars are combined to form what the artist calls ‘technoanimism’: the inanimate operating at the threshold of life.
Upon entering The Bluecoat, New York-based artist Ward Shelley’s tentacular diagram The History of Science Fiction v.2 (2009–12) suggests that the exhibition should be approached as a piece of science fiction. This is especially timely at a moment when sci-fi is gaining prominence among widening circles of writers and thinkers associated with speculative realism. Drawing on H.P. Lovecraft’s descriptions of utterly alien horrors, this argues for the autonomy of the object against anthropocentrism – a logic that resonates with older forms of animism. For as much as the technoanimist spirit of Leckey’s show fuels the current interest in speculative realism, it also questions its tenability. For what role would the spectator play in a world of indifferent things?
A cavernous space enclosed by dark walls, the first gallery hosts a collection of hybrid anthropomorphic creatures ranging from André Masson’s illustration of a headless man (for Georges Bataille’s short-lived publication Acéphale, 1936–9) to William Blake’s depiction of a monstrous flea-man (The Ghost of a Flea, 1819–20) and a mandrake root carved to resemble the human form. Historically, the mandrake was endowed with magic powers in virtue of its anthropomorphic features (often deliberately enhanced by the hand of man, as in this case). In the context of the exhibition, this fetish anchors the technological into the primitive. Small in size but not in power, the mandrake was believed to scream so loudly when uprooted as to kill everyone around it. Like the beheaded man and the monster, it is a figure of human mortality – something that not even the Internet Thing escapes, or so the show would seem to suggest.
The audience is led on a journey from cave to enlightenment, without leaving behind the primitive and primal. The central part of the display is arranged frontally, like a tableau vivant – a format that reflects Leckey’s concern with the interstitial zone between deadness and animation. The scene is something like a three-dimensional exquisite corpse. Body parts include Jim Shaw’s digestive apparatus (Dream Object – Digestive Tract, 2007), a 13th-century singing gargoyle, a cyborg helmet, a uterus (Stéphanie Rollin & The Plug, Uterus Vase, 2003) and a giant rocking penis (Herman Makkink, Rocking Machine, 1969–70). A mismatched pair of hands occupies the core of the whole show: one is a medieval silver reliquary intended for the preservation of dead flesh; the other is a bionic hand assembled in 2012 to replace a dead limb. While claiming to animate the techno-artefact, Leckey exposes the extent to which our technological imagination is rooted in the ancestral and all too human consciousness of death.
The exhibition closes with a screening that includes Ed Atkins’ video Death Mask II: The Scent (2010). Part of a larger series of works concerned with reanimation and cadavers, it comprises a series of memento mori immersed in digital acid tints. Fruit, burning candles and the back of a blonde head make up a contemporary vanitas reminiscent of Dutch still lifes with candles and skulls. A spring-loaded calculator eventually appears on screen, a final reiteration of the show’s narrative of techno-de-animation.
‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ may claim to reiterate the dumb script of the Internet of Things, but in doing so, it exposes a more profound dimension repressed by the logic of computing: the human residue that resists being subsumed by objects, cybernetic or otherwise. At a time when technological advances are being enthusiastically embraced in the UK as an antidote to stagnation by the coalition government and the art world alike, Leckey’s sci-fi feels particularly meaningful.
First published in Issue 155