In a world where art is often associated with seriousness and intellectualism, guilty pleasures challenge these perceptions by inviting viewers to embrace the unconventional and celebrate the mundane. They often blur the boundaries between high and low culture, merging elements from popular culture, kitsch, and street art. They challenge the elitism often associated with the art world, democratising the creative process and making it more accessible to a wider audience. Guilty pleasures remind us that art can be found in the most unexpected places.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 49. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
Guilty pleasures celebrate the power of unapologetic enjoyment. By embracing the unconventional and the pleasurable, they provide an escape from the seriousness and pressures of everyday life. In a world that often demands productivity and practicality, guilty pleasures offer a respite, reminding us of the importance of joy and self-indulgence. They encourage us to let go of judgment and embrace the inner child within us, fostering a sense of freedom and happiness that can be both liberating and transformative.
Since the late 1990s, Leckey’s influential practice has explored the relationship between popular culture and technology, and ideas around youth, class and nostalgia. Over the past six years Leckey has hosted a program on NTS Radio presenting experimental music by emerging and established artists, several of whom will be featured in the new exhibition at Turner Contemporary. The commissions will encompass themes of the horizon, the seaside, the past and the future, and will resonate with the wider social and political context of British coastal towns. Embracing a dual role in this show, Leckey serves as both artist and editor, utilising the concept of a magazine editorial as his foundation to choreograph an experience that blends moving image, sound, light and painting.
His work has been widely exhibited internationally, including solo exhibitions at Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, in 2008 and at Le Consortium, Dijon, in 2007. His performances have been presented in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art, Abrons Arts Center; at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, both in 2009, and at the Guggenheim Museum in 2008. His works are held in the collections of the Tate and the Centre Pompidou.
Installation view UniAddDumThs - Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Cabinet, London and Kunsthalle Basel.
What was it like living in the 90s in London?
The first part of the nineties wasn’t good. I didn't have a job and I couldn’t get a job, so I worked as a cycle courier for a bit and then ended up as a line cook at the restaurant. Then I was selling clothes at Portobello market at some point. The second half of the nineties was much better. I saved up enough money and went to America, where I met Gavin Brown and I just started hanging around the art scene that was kind of developing then. That was where everything started. I could still see a bit of old New York while it was just transitioning. I was always around Alphabet City and Tompkins Square Park. I used to be very young, so I only saw the end of that. Then I went to San Francisco and spent two years there. I didn’t like it that much. And then I went to Vegas for six months, which was hateful, and I went back to New York, and I loved it again.
How long have you stayed in the US? What sort of guilty pleasures did you have then? 
I overstayed in the US because I didn’t have a green card. I kind of got trapped in America. It was my kind of guilty pleasure. It was either I have to stay there or go home and not come back again. So, I decided to come back to the UK. And that’s when I started working on Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, because I realised it was nostalgia that brought me back. I realised that I just came back to this kind of a virus that infected the UK. It’s kind of a nostalgic disease.
Nostalgia and anxiety are dominant elements of your work, especially in Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Was it the first piece where you made work from your own experience?
At the time it was quite limited what you could get. I don’t think there's any more footage. There might be some home movies but that's about all you could get. It’s taken from this documentary called The Wigan Casino. At the time, people were using VHS. You could send them some money and they would send you a VHS copy. The research was different because you didn’t have Google, you would just write letters to people, saying you heard a rumor that someone had a VHS tape. A rave culture at its peak was like in 1993, and I started making the film in 1997. It was only a few years before, so you could still get tapes that people had made. I used to go to record shops and see what they had. 
Did you film any of the footage?
I could but I didn’t. It was all found from documentaries. I also was a little bit too young for that. I kind of remember older people being involved in it in the south of England, so around London and the coast, and I was in the Northwest. It kind of percolated up to the Northwest. I used to go to local discos and that kind of dance. I left school in 1980 and from the late seventies there was punk and goth and new wave, new romance. I tried those kinds of costumes, but I ended up as a kind of casual for my teens. Then I went to college, and I was raving a lot. I was very much around for Acid House. I kind of felt a little bit old for that. 
What was the idea behind it?
It was about the consumer culture of the late 20th century. It was about the brand loyalty some groups had and the records they purchased, the way you consumed and how you could disrupt that in some way. It was essentially about working class youth who, through consumption, produce their own culture and their own vital communities. So there was a form of aspirational drag going on, but it’s actually productive in that sense. It’s not just delusion. That to me outweighs the critique that they’re engaged in just another delusional form of capitalism because it establishes these networks, these communities that not only thrive but also produce an energy that can extend out to create other social relationships.
You have said that “subcultures are just one of the many things the Internet has observed and defanged”. What is a subculture in our social climate? Does it still exist?
I just think it’s different. The twentieth century has already finished. Everything’s been kind of compressed and condensed. Now you can talk about those things in the same way that you talk about the Baroque or Renaissance. Do you know what I mean? Things continue, but then it’s very different. I’m really fascinated by this idea that the internet has converted time into space. There’s no longer any kind of chronology to things. It’s just a cross, rather than moving forward. You know, there’s no forward momentum in that sense and things just kind of move around. It has a different dynamic, I think, and different conditions. The Internet has extended itself into all of these areas that made a subculture able to thrive, not just in terms of fashion, but also the record industry and the ubiquitousness of brands. Part of what Fiorucci is about is how each of the geographic regions that produced these different dance cultures happened in isolation. They’re basically weird phenomena that had been left unnoticed for a long period of time so they were able to mutate and branch off into all these other crazy phenomena. That can no longer happen after the Internet because everything is immediately absorbed.
O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain, 2020. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London.
I agree, we live kind of in between eras. The past one has ended and the new one hasn't started yet. There are a lot of moving parts, which we are currently witnessing. Can we talk about your show O Magic Power of Bleakness which was about the supernatural encounter you had when you were young? It sounds very fascinating.
It was about trying to grasp a memory that you’re not entirely convinced you know. For a long time, I believed in this encounter under the bridge with some kind of pixie or fairy and then, when I reached early adulthood, I kind of stopped believing. I just thought I was a young, deluded child and it was time to grow up and put those things to one side. Then I started thinking about it. I was trying to understand who I was at that time. I was eight or nine, and I have memories of that age. I can’t really remember much before that, but I can remember being eight or nine. I guess I was fascinated by that, the ability of a young mind to be receptive to these kinds of things, where two worlds might kind of cross over. Or, having an imagination that's capable of that kind of thing. Manifesting something as vivid as this kind of hallucination that appears real to you is the capacity that young mind, not just mine, any young mind has. The world seems much more fixed and concrete now. In a way as it was for me as a child, it's harder to tell what’s true and what’s not. I was thinking about those kinds of things but also it all happened underneath this motorway bridge. This kind of magic occurred in this very drab, municipal place, you know what I mean?
It is very symbolic, and a bridge is a good metaphor for a lot of things.
It has enough momentum in it to kind of keep things going. That was something. There was old folklore in it, but then also very British movies that are always about this attempt to depict a working-class experience. There’s a young man, who’s trying to escape the background. It was about these kinds of conflicts that cause frustrations and all the rest of it. It was about the supernatural. It was about class. And then I started thinking. Both of these things are impossible to describe, but it's lining you. The more you move towards it, the more nebulous it becomes.
You’ve said in one of your interviews that you were interested in cargo cults? Can you talk about that?
I wouldn’t say I’m interested in cargo cults that much. My only real interest in it was when I was in San Francisco. I used to work at a place there called Artists’ Television Access, which at the time, in the early nineties, was this weird something in between a club and a gallery and you could go there and do video editing. It was run by this artist Craig Baldwin. His whole take on videos was around cargo cults. The images were very prolific, and they appeared kind of magical and you don’t know how they were made, you don't know how they were produced. We think that we kind of rationally understand these things, but we view it more as magic. You know, we’re enthralled by all the things that you would talk about in terms of magic. We are enthralled by it. We are under its spell.
You won the Turner prize in 2008 for Industrial Light and Magic. It looks like a massive life event on paper. But does it feel like that to you at the time? Was there a noticeable increase in opportunities or interest? 
It wasn’t immediate but it helped a lot. It’s a big prize and it does make a huge difference, but I imagine you just kind of believe is this immediate impact and straight away people are offering you things or asking you to do things. So, it’s a bit slower but it changed my life and helped financially of course. I was very broke and that basically pulled me out of a hole. You know it’s a really great experience and I really enjoyed it. Two years ago, all the artists agreed that none of them would take the prize and share the prize and I thought that's a noble thing to do but it didn’t cross my mind back then. I just needed the money. That's always a thing for sure and it was a great thing but maybe now I'd approach it differently if something like that happened.
How big is your team? Do you work from studio or home?
I work from home. I’ve got a little studio upstairs with an iMac and I use it when I need. I have a team but they’re not my employees. I have a friend called Tim Baker, who does CGI. I have a friend called Steve Hellier, who helps with sound engineering. Then I had a friend, but he’s not working with me anymore, who made physical things for me. Most of them I’ve been friends with for a very long time. 
Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, 1999. Installation view, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain, 2020. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London.
Obviously, you have different tools now. But there is still this wonderful analogue feel of pixelated, granular, blurry footage. Can you talk about your work process?
I was commissioned by one gallery to make a video. I knew I was going to make something about the seaside. So, I just read lots of things about the sea, collected lots of images. I just basically go through this process of absorbing stuff. I wouldn't call it research. It doesn’t feel like research to me, because it’s not that academic. I’m just stuffing myself with information related to this one topic and then I wait to metabolise, and I start to make something out of it. I want the feeling of what I'm trying to make. It is a sort of horizon I can kind of aim for. Visually I just have this abstract thing in mind that works as a kind of guide. And then I start to put it together. I have a clear idea what I want to do, and then I have a kind of breakdown where I think it is. Then I hit this point, where it’s just very joyful and I’m just living and breathing the making of that thing and that becomes very obsessive and then it's done.
Sounds like a normal creative process.
Yes, it’s a very normal process. There is nothing extraordinary about it at all. It’s quiet domestic, you know. I have two kids and I sit around the family a lot, and it all stops and starts with that. Sometimes people ask if they can come and film my studio or film my work. And there is nothing to film. Sometimes I want to break out because it feels a little bit too comforting, just, more like I’m hunched over a laptop like everyone else. I mean it’s creative, but it’s no more creative than graphic design. I just wish my body was there as well. I wish I was involved in all my kind of attributes rather than just mind attached to the fingers.
In your interviews, you mention Jeff Koons a lot. What are the other artists that you were looking up when you were growing up or impacted you? 
ML: Before I went to college, I did a foundation course on Renaissance and that’s something I constantly go back to. History of classic painting from Goya to Monet, et cetera, et cetera. Mike Kelley was someone particularly I liked a lot back then, Lutz Bacher. And then friends like Frances Stark, Martin Sims…
There was a great quote in one of your interviews, where you’ve said you are “continually doubting art’s place in the world”, whereas you can believe in music completely. Sounds like music plays a big role in your work.
When I talked in the beginning how I kind of needed a device to make work, and in a way, music became something similar. The problem for me of making art is self-consciousness of making art. The discourse is kind of guiding you. But in the sense, it’s difficult not to allow it to guide you. You’re in the kind of current, and all these ideas are coming to you, and you are looking at it. Everyone is reading the same materials, go to the same galleries. Then you are starting to make work, and these voices become quite dominant as you’re making work. I always wanted to kind of escape that. I’m not interested in those ideas, so music became very helpful. I made a series of videos, but I was just trying to make music videos rather than art. I think that any artist is looking for this kind of freedom or permission, and sometimes you just have to find it. 
Were there any guilty pleasures you found in your work?
At the moment, I want to make something, and then I want to rethink it in a different way. Art always has this repulsion and attraction sides and I think maybe the repulsion side got too great, too dominant. You know what I mean?
Yes, the boundaries between repulsion and attraction are very blurry. What is considered aesthetically pleasing or socially acceptable is very subjective. By juxtaposing repulsive elements with attractive ones, it creates a tension that compels us to confront our own biases and question our definitions of beauty, morality, and societal norms. That leads me to my last question, what are the projects you are currently working on?
There is a group show on October 7th to January 14th at Turner Contemporary and I was commissioned to be kind of an editor of that show. It’s called In the Offing, meaning the image of the distant sea visible from the shoreline and having a sense of anticipation and foreboding. Next year I’ve got a couple of things. I want to do something with musician Crystallmess. That should be very exciting. And later in November I have a show in New York at Gladstone Gallery.
Installation view UniAddDumThs - Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, 2015.Courtesy of the artist, Cabinet, London and Kunsthalle Basel.
Installation view UniAddDumThs - Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, Cabinet, London and Kunsthalle Basel.
Installation view, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain, 2020. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London.
Installation view, O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain, 2020. Courtesy the Artist and Cabinet, London.
Dazzleddark, 2023. Courtesy of Cabinet, London, Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York and Gladstone Gallery, New York. © Mark Leckey.