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Interview with Eddie Peake

Like many people, I had seen Eddie Peake’s penis long before I met the artist himself. For several years a fuchsia-tinted, close-up photograph of his erection was the sole image on his website. He is often naked in the large group performance pieces that he swiftly has become known for, such as ‘Touch’ (2012), a nude five-a-side football game staged at the Royal Academy Schools, where he was a student, and ‘Infinite Disparity’ (2013), a continuous performance devised onsite at his solo exhibition at White Cube, a show that Eddie himself describes as ‘elaborate and bonkers’.

 

Much of Peake’s art shouts for attention, and like the nudity it is purposefully difficult to ignore. His paintings combine kitsch, acid-coloured spray painting with new rave imagery like massive pairs of sunglasses. On to pristine mirrored surfaces large lacquered letters are scrawled: ‘DON’T THINK U’R 2 NICE’, ‘CLLNG ALL RVRS’, ‘GRRLS WHO LOVE DICK’.

 

But in person Eddie is not at all flamboyant. Softly spoken and self-effacing, he discusses his work and the art world with humility and humour. He is all sleepy north London lad: shaved head, pierced ear, matching Nike tracksuit and trainers. Although he comes from an artistic family he says his other siblings were the ‘arty ones, always drawing’. He was more into physical stuff: using his body, playing football, being outside.

 

That impulsive energy, a desire to be active and present, has carried through into his work. Currently in the process of putting together his latest solo show, A Historical Masturbators, at Galleria Lorcan O’Neill in Rome, he remains driven chiefly by a love of making and doing. Combined with confidence and curiosity, this has led him down many paths in order to create his work – music, film, photography, drama, dance – and it is clear from his description of this show that he will continue to explore more. (Our interview concludes when a foundry man arrives to discuss whether it might be possible to cast ejaculations in bronze.)

 

Q

The White Review

— You recently launched a record label and an EP in collaboration with the Vinyl Factory. How significant are collaborations, and music itself, to your work?

A

Eddie Peake

— Almost all my performances have live music, and all have original compositions. The record was made with a piano player called Gwilym Gold, who has been in a number of my performance works including Infinite Disparity, the constantly present piece that was part of my first show with White Cube. One of the chord sequences he devised during that performance later went on to become the chord sequence in his song Muscle, the first release on my imprint HYMN. The video I made for Muscle also featured a dancer who had been in the White Cube show, Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome, so the song and video felt partly like it grew out of that exhibition.

 

I wouldn’t say that all the works are ultimately collaborations. They definitely have my authorship, but they are made collaboratively. I know that’s a paradoxical thing to say, but the people in them really contribute a huge amount. I think my role, as well as being one of the many creators, is to direct the way people are involved and to steer the ship.

Q

The White Review

— So you don’t necessarily begin with a clear vision?

A

Eddie Peake

— I do and I don’t. I have a mood or an atmosphere or a sentence.

Q

The White Review

— Do you find that difficult to convey to the performers? It must take tremendous confidence.

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, it’s hard. I pretend, I literally pretend. I go into those first rehearsals with my knees knocking with nerves, thinking that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. You walk into a room and it can be really daunting seeing ten faces looking at you going: what do we do? Initially my feeling is you please tell me, I don’t know what to do.

 

So the way I cope with that situation is to pretend that I know what I’m doing, pretend that I’m a director. I’ll arrive with a skeletal structure in place, but for the rehearsal period, not the performance. I don’t know what the performance is going to be. All I know is that I’ve made these performances before and that it’s going to continue that thread. They are all rehearsed very thoroughly, and all the performances are devised in the rehearsal. The rehearsal period is usually around a week, and we’ll lead directly into the performance at the end of that.

Q

The White Review

— Are you ultimately trying to create a narrative?

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, one where there is a very distinct arc but where the specific details of the narrative are deliberately kept at bay, as in a David Lynch or a Jodorowsky film, or surrealist cinema. I want other things to be what people think about. Not he cheated on her, who was that etc., but about your role as a viewer, that’s a really important thing.

Q

The White Review

— A key element of your performances seems to be this Brechtian idea of making the audience aware of themselves as viewers.

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, I like to use devices that make the audience self-consciously aware of its own viewing. For my part I’m interested in the gallery as a location or venue for performance because of its capacity to induce this effect in an audience. It connects in my mind to the feeling I have that, although I want my performances to be dramas with protagonists, relationships, fluctuations, arcs and so on, the ultimate protagonist is the viewer, who is always on display.

Q

The White Review

— By leaving the narrative threads within the performance work loose, are you also attempting to reveal the process of its creation?

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, the thought processes, absolutely. I am interested in control, manipulation, and employing devices in the work that might seem to be doing that to its audience, whilst also exposing that it is trying to do that.

 

Going back to music – I feel like music is the art form that can manipulate your feelings most strongly, something that’s especially true in Hollywood films. You could be watching something really mundane, but the music is telling you: this is remarkable. I love those devices, and I have come to start using them in my performance works, but where it is all there for an audience to see. In conventional theatre, even if there were live music, the musicians would be hidden. In the performances that I do, the musicians are there with the performers to begin with, so there’s no attempt to disguise the device.

 

I do want to make work that communicates directly to the viewer, but I’d like that to be more a feeling, something that you might intuitively register. I hate the idea of art as a set of signs that you decode. I feel that it is becoming something of a modus operandi for the contemporary art world today.

Q

The White Review

— And so by introducing an element of self-consciousness, the performance situates the viewer absolutely in the moment?

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, and to heighten the feeling of being watched as well, because that’s the thing about an art gallery…

Q

The White Review

— That galleries encourage – or even rely upon – that feeling?

A

Eddie Peake

— I always feel very conscious walking into a gallery. That precipice between normal space and gallery space is like automatically turning on a switch. You go into that space and you begin to look differently, in a critical way. Even if you want to respond negatively to that, you are still doing that as a reaction to the condition. I like employing that device in the performances, and that’s why (apart from the Tate Tanks piece, ‘Amidst A Sea Of Flailing High Heels and Cooking Utensils, part 1’ (2012), which had very theatrical lighting) in every performance I’ve done I like to have the bright gallery lighting, so that you are as much on display as the thing you are watching. There’s a sort of mirroring going on, so that in effect the subject matter has to be you, the viewer.

Q

The White Review

— Does a similar idea lie behind the mirror and mask paintings?

A

Eddie Peake

— Yes, absolutely, I like that with the mirror paintings the viewer has to be a part of the work because they see their own reflection. The mask paintings are slightly different for me. I think of them as personified objects that stare at the viewer, so it’s a kind of head to head, but one in which the viewer can be a bit more relaxed.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think about the audience when you’re making your work? Is their reaction constantly in your mind?

A

Eddie Peake

— I do, I really do. It’s agony actually. The first incarnation of my website, which now is just one image that rarely changes, was a slide show of eight images, many of which were quite performative close-ups of characters doing a performance action. Each one had ‘The harrowing discrepancy between my intentions and your understanding’ superimposed on to it. It’s a thought I often have – a horror of misinterpretation or misunderstanding – but I don’t carry it round with me any more as this thing I want to govern or dictate the direction that the work moves in. I think that’s a fear that artists have to let go of at some point, because it just happens.

 

Some artists, it seems to me, figure out the meaning of their work and then make it. Whereas I, on the other hand, make my work and then try to figure out what it might mean. That said, I don’t mind not knowing what the work might mean. I don’t want to make work that ‘means’ things, or is ‘about’ things. I want to make work that simply exists.

Q

The White Review

— Nudity and sex have been recurrent in your work since you were a student at The Slade. Their significance, I assume, lies beyond mere provocation. Your latest show, for instance, is called A Historical Masturbators. Can you explain that title, and how you use the body in your work?

A

Eddie Peake

— I have always found history to be a burdensome and complicated concept or reality, but something that I also enjoy indulging in and doing battle with. In Rome, where I have been living for the last seven months, perhaps more so than many places, one can never escape the shadow of history, which is celebrated almost to the extent that the city actively inhibits endeavours to move beyond the past. History is toyed with and fetishised here like a massive vibrating dildo.

 

I wanted to draw upon that, but also the way in which a personal historical narrative, as in my own autobiographical memories, plays a factor in that too. I like to think about masturbation as this horrible but addictive thing, so indicative of unrequited desire and love, so painful and depressing. It is a rich psychological and dramatic terrain.

 

I have deliberately tried to make the title of the show grammatically incorrect but only just. It starts singular but ends plural. It’s a way for me to reference the doomed capacity of words, especially when living as a foreigner, trying to communicate in a new language. It looks how a phrase might come up in Google translate, or how I might unknowingly try to explain something in my haphazard grasp of Italian.

Q

The White Review

— One of those images on the website was a picture of your own erect penis, and often you appear naked in your live works. Is your own physical presence, your own exposure, important?

A

Eddie Peake

— First of all, as with everything in my work, it stems from a simple enjoyment in making, not from a cerebral or intellectual attempt to create ‘meaning’.

 

When I started using nudity I just wanted to use the most easily available thing I had at my disposal: my body. I wanted to explore in the most unabashed way the sexual desires I had as a person existing in the world, so I began by taking pictures of myself naked, with an erection, masturbating, posing sexily, etc. Those photos, which I took with the help of a friend when I was at The Slade in 2004, resulted in a series of pictures that included the one that was on my website for a long time. They still mean a great deal to me because they were so un-impinged by self-conscious meaning, but instead were just direct impulse and desire – what I think art should be.

Q

The White Review

— One of your oldest on-going series of works are the ‘Handschmeichler’ sculptures. They contrast significantly with your performance work and also your paintings. Would it be correct to say that you are in some sense balancing your works against each other?

A

Eddie Peake

— The Handschmeichlers are a way to resist the other quicker, painterly paintings, like the mask and mirror paintings, which shout at the viewer and command your attention. They are an attempt to slow everything down. The way they’re made in the studio is a painstaking and laborious process. They are quiet works. If you’re not willing to apply yourself to them then you could very easily just ignore them. We don’t have an equivalent phrase to its German meaning – the literal English translation of handschmeichler is hand flatterer – but it refers to objects that exist in the world that are so enticing to touch or to hold that they almost look like they’ve been made for that purpose.

 

A lot of the works I make are reactions not even to the work, but to a particular way of thinking. I envy those artists who have made a decision to do one thing. Although I recognise that within whatever parameters they have set up for themselves there are developments and investigations happening, I also feel that if you’ve made that decision then you’ve ruled out copious problems. What I’ve decided to do is the complete opposite of that, and it induces a perpetual state of anxiety.

Q

The White Review

— Do you ever see yourself narrowing what you do?

A

Eddie Peake

— I don’t think so, to be honest. What I envy is the sense of security, but I can’t relate to that experience. What do you do with those ideas that don’t pertain to the parameters? I want to act on those impulses, not ignore them.

 

The other good thing about making lots of work in lots of different media is that I can really use the fact that some of the work is saleable in order to effectively pay for the less saleable works. I like doing things that way; it makes everything feel holistic and wholesome.

Q

The White Review

— Some of the appeal in contemporary art today seems to be grounded in how it presents this rare place where extreme, or elaborate, or far-fetched ideas can be realised. Do you think that’s what draws you to it?

A

Eddie Peake

— Definitely. I went to a talk with Frances Stark, who described how she didn’t know what to do with her theoretical and philosophical ideas, and then she realised that contemporary art was a good place to investigate those things. I feel very similarly to that, although my interests are definitely more to do with making than theoretical ideas.

 

I’m increasingly realising that contemporary art often draws on popular culture as a motif as if it is above it, not belonging to it. I want to make work that is popular culture. For me they are part of the same spectrum.

 

When you said earlier is there one thing that you want to narrow down to: when I think about that it’s actually feature films for the cinema.

Q

The White Review

— Does this interest manifest itself at all in your latest work? Or do you see it as distinct to your artwork?
A

Eddie Peake

— I definitely don’t see this aspiration as distinct to my artwork. I really like doing things like the record label, for example, that step into a more public domain. To me it feels realer. My desire to make feature films is in part to do with that. But it’s also to do with the way films incorporate so much (music, sound, narrative, imagery, dialogue, etc.) as a singular experience. Though it is inherently very different to the experience of seeing performances in art galleries – not least because of the context – the world of film and going to the cinema is the experience I most closely relate to my performance works.

 

I see myself as nothing other than an artist, but rather than exist hermetically within the confines of the art world with its esoteric discussions, I want to exist in the world at large.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


LILY LE BRUN is a freelance writer on art and culture based in London. She has written for publications including Apollo, the Economist, the Sunday Times and AnOther Magazine. Her interview with artist Tess Jaray was published in The White Review in December 2013.