Sex, pop culture and cultural dissonance
With the opening of his ambitious Barbican exhibition, Eddie Peake advocates cultural incongruity and sexual sincerity
Previous Curve Space commissions I’ve covered for Crack have been as much showcases for sophisticated new technological developments as they have been artworks.
The first, in 2013, was Rain Room, a work by artist collective Random International. The epitome of spectacle, it was a dramatically lit and unique immersive experience; an opportunity to walk through the pouring rain without getting wet. The following year I went to United Visual Artist’s Momentum; where giant robotic pendulums, capable of arresting themselves mid-swing, were installed with the intention of doing strange things to our perception of time.
This time I’m speaking to Eddie Peake, celebrated ‘bright young thing’, graduate of Slade and Royal Academy Schools and multi-disciplinary artist responsible for The Barbican’s new commission The Forever Loop, which opens this month. In contrast to the technology-focussed Curve shows we’ve featured previously, this is sure to be a profound and cerebral exhibition. Having said that, as an installation which features a maze structure, a chequer-board dance floor, brightly coloured animal sculptures and continuous live performance; Peake’s playfulness, lightness of touch and visual generosity should ensure that it won’t be any less engaging.
Peake has garnered a certain amount of notoriety for a selection of dubious tales surrounding his practice and career, which have been dwelt on fairly extensively by a lot of the interviews, profiles and features on him. Firstly, his distinctly NSFW homepage: a lasciviously-lit photograph of a large and erotically cradled erection. Second, the naked game of five-a-side he curated, choreographed and staged for his second year show at the Royal Academy.
The third is his success, versus his age, versus the fact that he was still in education when his career took off and he was signed to the White Cube. This third point is dismissed by Peake fairly soon into our interview. “The one problem [with studying at the RA] that’s really annoying is that like nine out of every ten things that are written about me will say “young art star, Eddie Peake” or “Eddie Peake, who only recently finished art school,” even though I’m five or ten years older than some of the other artists they talk about and who they don’t say that kind of stuff about. And it’s all because it kicked off for me when I was at the RA.”
Peake’s not actually that young – he was born in 1981. But as he says, the fact that he was still in higher education during his ascent into the public (or at least art-public) eye is enough to support a ‘young art star’ narrative. It’s worth noting that Laure Prouvost, who won the Turner Prize in 2013, is only three years older than him.
But while that third point is easily dismissed, the erection and the naked football are a different matter. Rather than selectively-contextualised journalistic hot-air, these are in fact important signifiers in the semiotic of Peake’s visual language – a complicated, highly developed and extremely sophisticated practice that encompasses and interlinks myriad mediums, disciplines and themes.
His work spans not just media and discipline, but also cultural platforms. Alongside his art practice, he also has a record label, HYMN, has directed music videos for Gwilym Gold, collaborated with Actress and co-runs the gay clubnight night Anal House Meltdown. He views these different elements together, as “definitely all part of one whole thing. It’s all my work as an artist.”
The network his practice encompasses is pretty daunting to engage with; each aspect of it in some way informs or relates to another. At the same time, his meaning is distinctly unfixed: “There are artists who figure out what they want to make work about, and then they make the work,” he says. “And then there’s artists who make the work and then figure out what it’s about, and I’m the latter kind.”
“Entertainment is very demonised in the art world. Some of the things that have inspired me the most are very much a part of popular culture"
This is not to say, however, that the meaning he retrospectively gleans from his work is in any way less serious or significant than if it were something he had planned in anticipation of making. In discussion, I flippantly refer to the image on the website as, variously, a “stiffy” and a “boner.” It’s too much to suggest that he’s unimpressed by this (also frequently reported is his charm as an interviewee), but he definitely refuses to engage on any sort of schoolboy terms: “In my mind, the erection thing is quite matter-of-fact.”
Sexuality is something that Eddie Peake takes extremely seriously in his work, rejecting any comparisons to the kind of Carry On… style humour that could be perceived in the staging of a naked football match, and arguing that this behaviour is like a carpet under which important dialogues about sexual identity are brushed. “I can’t stand that kind of thing. I can’t bear puns and innuendos,” he says. “I feel like, why not just have it out there for everyone to see and talk about that, rather than using euphemisms?”
At the same time, though, Peake views what he does as “entertainment,” and he’s wary of the art world’s tendency towards distinguishing between types of culture as ‘high’ and ‘low’. “Entertainment is very demonised in the art world,” he argues. “I’m not saying all entertainment is good, but some of my favourite things that I’ve encountered, the things that have inspired me the most, are very much a part of popular culture.
“And when I say popular culture,” he continues, “I mean quite a broad spectrum of things. At one end there’s Nicki Minaj and Madonna and Prince, and then at the other end there’s Roland Barthes, Judith Butler, so on and so forth, and they’re all on a continuum together.”
With this in mind, he firmly positions his own practice on that same continuum, and refuses to distinguish between the cultural influences he draws upon when making his work. Indeed, he kind of gets off on what he describes as “jarring incongruity,” something which informed his decision to appear in one of Kendrick Lamar’s music videos last year. “The only thing in the video I’m doing is making a painting,” Peake says. “It’s possible to imagine a slight shift in how that video was made. It would have felt like a street looking guy making a graffiti piece – that would have looked like a conventional hip-hop music video, but the guy that made it was very particular in saying that ‘I want this to be you just making an artwork.’ I don’t know if he was thinking it was really incongruous, but it felt like that to me, and that was what was exciting about it.”
This desire to juxtapose contemporary art with cultural modes that many in the “art bubble” might look down on, and the thrill that comes from the resulting incongruity, is born of a desire to demystify and democratise art. This desire has inspired another one of Peake’s significant works, made for his final show at the Royal Academy.
"Why not just have it out there for everyone to see and talk about that, rather than using euphemisms?”
For the duration of the exhibition, he installed pirate radio institution Kool FM into the Royal Academy to broadcast. As a gesture it was typically multilayered, with Kool FM at the same time providing a kind of autobiographical metonymical connection to his influences and past, and functioning as direct means for expanding the elitist art-bubble to include demographics for whom it normally holds no sway. “I think there was a sort of beauty in that,” says Peake. “It did feel like a magical social moment, for me at least, when I’d come in and see a crowd of rude boys standing around, nodding their heads, and then a woman just finished her Mayfair Yoga class, trotting through with her Chihuahua.”
For all that, Peake is down-to-earth and inclusive in his practice, there’s also no concealing the fact that he is firmly institutionalised. He’s spent the best part of a decade training as an artist in two of the most highly regarded centres for art education in England, if not the world. His skill is in drawing key disparate elements together – collaborators, imagery, references and themes, and formulating them into simultaneously sophisticated and inclusive art works.
“I think that’s how I approach all my shows, actually,” he tells me. “I want them to be enjoyed, to give a lot to the viewer and reward the viewer’s work. It is work, looking at art, I think. But at the same time I want it to be delivered in a way that also might trigger a thought process that’s serious.”
The Forever Loop runs at The Barbican from 9 October – 10 January 2016