Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969), a seminal work in the canon of American avant-garde film, can be taken as an example both of modernist reflexivity – it is a film about a film, in a sense – and the libidinal cinephilia that courses through the veins of filmmakers of the ‘independent persuasion’ (Annette Michelson’s wonderful phrase) no less than their devotees. Jacobs’s camera caresses and peruses the surface of an earlier artefact of film’s history in a manner that only someone with a deep desire for the medium might do. And ‘desire’ is the word. Not ‘love’, which is too respect-laden an emotion to allow for the kind of mistreatment to which mistresses are subject while ‘loves’ are not.
Pearl Vision (2012), a video that Leckey produced during a residency at the Hammer Museum, exhibits a similar kind of cinephilia, but in Leckey’s case the desire isn’t so much for film itself but for digital video’s capacity for analysis and capture. To revive that old distinction of Walter Benjamin’s, if Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son is magical, involving a laying on of hands without ever compromising the body of film, Leckey’s work is surgical, laying bare the body of moving-image work as light, movement and sync sound.
Much might be made of the object here. Pearl Vision is the brand and model name of the snare drum that stars in the work. We see through it, the way one sees through a kaleidoscope perhaps. And we penetrate it in the manner that endoscopic procedures penetrate the body, as if through a keyhole. We also see the drummer, but never all of him, just his legs, both clothed (in red trousers) and unclothed, in their natural male hirsuteness. We hear the snap, snap, snap of the drumsticks’ report, but on other occasions we see only the drumsticks’ motion, the object of their ballistic arcs having been removed temporarily from the scene. It’s all pretty compelling to watch.
The problem is that Pearl Vision is not the only work offered here, even within the space of the video itself. On Pleasure Bent is billed as a trailer for a more autobiographical work of Leckey’s to come. The video begins with a different, far less coherent set of scenes, which have something to do with picturing Leckey’s memories of his childhood. They’re culled from footage of the 1970s and succumb to all the clichéd conventions of music-video montage in order to ‘suggest’ a mood and a portent – presumably of the artist. The cardboard ‘standees’ – those advertising constructs, like potted plants, that one can still find in odd corners of movie theatre lobbies – that accompany the video are also meant to offer such suggestions, but these merely ‘stand for’ and so picture the kind of truss-work towers that carry high-tension electrical lines (goodness, did the artist have to look at these growing up?). The looped animations on LED screens are similarly pat.
Save for Pearl Vision, On Pleasure Bent smacks a bit too much of art school – although one suspects that the art school implicated here is of the ‘curatorial persuasion’, the kind that wants to look smart rather than be it.
This review was first published in the December 2013 issue of ArtReview.