Ben Leslie’s UNDEAD MONUMENT

My first encounter with the nascent works of Undead Monument took place in Ben Leslie’s studio shortly after he had fallen through the studio roof whilst investigating a faulty air conditioner. This moment of life-threatening slapstick remains inextricably bound up in my experience of the work and provides a peculiarly apt point of reference. Leslie’s latest work posits a world populated by zombified and possessed objects. Animated by sinister forces, these materials might deign to become involved in acts of sculpture but ultimately care little for their human masters. This whimsical yet pessimistic worldview has numerous antecedents. The father of the modern ghost story Montague Rhodes James exemplifies it in his brief cautionary tale ‘The Malice of Inanimate Objects’. British humourist Paul Jennings gave it a pseudo-philosophical framework in his theory of ‘resistentialism’ (which he distilled into the ominous aphorism ‘things are against us’). A gloriously daft take on the notion exists in the form of Quentin Dupieux’s 2010 film Rubber, the story of a car tyre named Robert who comes to life and goes on a killing spree across California. In the world according to James, Jennings or Dupieux, Leslie’s accident would no doubt be attributed to a malicious conspiracy between the air-conditioner, a roof tile and a structural beam.

Leslie’s current practice centres on an earnest attempt to give objects and materials this kind of malevolent agency. He is intent on shifting the balance of power in the relationship between the maker and the material. Where the heroes of modernism (with whom the artist has such a fraught relationship) were masters of their materials, bending them to their will, Leslie facilitates a very different relationship with the raw stuff of sculpture. The artist’s milieu is one where matter is rebellious and untameable. Like a belligerent zombie, it has crossed over to the other side and come back monstrous and wrong. Leslie’s characterisation of his work as ‘undead’ is clearly informed by the prevalence of walking corpses in the popular imagination, however the artist is not simply jumping aboard a convenient pop-culture bandwagon. Undeath is one of a number of contradictory, in-between states that the artist repeatedly invokes in his work. Curiously enough the prefix ‘un-‘ crops up time and time again in Leslie’s descriptions of these states, most notably in his self-coined neologisms ‘unorigin’ and ‘unmoment’. In the course of his undergraduate study, Leslie coined the term ‘unorigin’ as a way of describing the heredity of a freshly made sculpture and the peculiar sense of familiarity that can accompany an entirely new, never-before-seen object. Similarly, scrambling the word ‘monument’ to generate the anagram ‘unmoment’ gave the artist his framing device for his Honours research, which collided themes of entropy and instability with the static nature of monumental sculpture. The nuances of his playful critique of monumentality are beyond the scope of this short text. Suffice it to say, I imagine Leslie sympathising with Richard Wentworth’s famous declaration that a cigarette packet chocking a wonky table leg is more monumental than a Henry Moore sculpture.

The latent threat of collapse that is embedded in so much of Leslie’s previous work is made more explicit in Undead Monument through the introduction of kinetic elements. Leslie is always acutely aware of both the contemporary and historical context he operates in and with his first foray into kinetic sculpture his allegiances are immediately apparent. The works recall the rambunctious sound and motion of Jean Tinguely and Len Lye. The quality of movement is as jarring and nerve-jangling as Regan MacNeil’s shaking bed in The Exorcist. Taunting us with the vase that threatens to fall but never does and titillating us with gyrating objects of wet clay, Leslie acts out his notion of artist as contemporary snake charmer – a human agent only tenuously controlling something wild, strange and potentially dangerous. While the thinking that underpins the work is complex, I suspect Leslie’s motivations are very simple. This is an artist who wants more magic in the world. He wants ghosts to be real and for all the dark fictions we create to bleed into the real world just a little bit, if only to give us a much needed jolt.

- Roy Ananda, 2013.