If you’ve seen Eddie Peake’s art, chances are you’ve seen him naked. Though he makes paintings, sculptures, installations, films and photographs, the 34-year-old Londoner (son of artists Fabian Peake and Phyllida Barlow, grandson of ‘Gormenghast’ writer Mervyn Peake) is best known for epic, erotically charged performance works such as 2012’s ‘Touch’ – featuring naked five-a-side football – in which viewing and voyeurism are consciously confused and nudity comes as standard.
Though he’s too bashful to admit it, Peake is the brightest of a new generation of London art stars including Prem Sahib and George Henry Longly, with whom he runs occasional club night Anal House Meltdown.
This week Peake takes on the Barbican’s 90-metre-long Curve Gallery for his biggest public exhibition in the capital to date. It’s an extravaganza that includes sculpture, installation, text, a rollerskater in a see-through onesie but, somewhat surprisingly, not the artist himself.
How do you pull all the elements of your work together for a big show like this? ‘I tend to go into rehearsals not knowing what the final thing will be like. It might have a core movement I want to use as a point of departure and so on.’
The Curve is a notoriously awkward space for art. Has it been difficult to plan the show? ‘No, I feel like I and it are a match made in heaven – because I really work with narrative, not necessarily in a literal way, and you can’t not work with narrative in the Curve when there’s this constant unfolding. You don’t get to see the whole space at any one time, even though it’s a single gallery.’
Has the space influenced the art? ‘Yes. What I’ve been trying to do from the outset is meddle with what constitutes a beginning, middle or end, hence the title of the show, “The Forever Loop”. The whole show expands on the phenomenon of the loop. It’s not even a questioned convention now that you walk into a video installation in a gallery and you’ll be somewhere in the loop, not necessarily at the beginning of the film. And a lot of the music that I listen to and play at my nightclub is structured or built on loops. Also, the space is kind of half a loop, so one of the key works in the space is a sentence painted on to the wall that begins at the end of the space and ends at the beginning, thus the viewer, if they want to read the sentence, has to complete the loop by walking back to the entrance.’
What’s the text about? ‘It’s a nebulously autobiographical text. The recurring starting point for the work is thinking about a lady I always see around Camden Town. I guess she’s homeless. I’m sure she doesn’t know who the fuck I am but I know her because, when I was 20, we were in hospital at the same time, and I always stop to give her money and buy her food. By the way, I say this as a Londoner – there’s no romance about Camden.’
What are the performance elements of the show? ‘There are two performances. They’re both constantly present in the space. One is a kind of character who is silent, wears a sheer onesie and rollerskates around the space in a kind of louche, sprite-like fashion, occasionally stopping to pose or to rub their genitals. A bit like a pervert you’d encounter on Parkland Walk in Finsbury Park, who flashes then runs away.’
Have you been flashed at in Finsbury Park? ‘No but my sisters have. And the back of the house I grew up in looked out on to a cruising site, so we’d see dudes meeting up with each other and having clandestine sex.’
Where do you find a rollerskater willing to wear a see-through onesie? ‘We held a proper audition. There was everything, from people who had clearly never put on a pair of rollerskates in their life to people doing amazing pirouettes. I just had them skate around and every now and again come to a pause and strike a statuesque pose of their own making. It was a really easy decision to make, because some were incredible. I did not know there was such a wealth of rollerskating enthusiasts in London.’
And the second performance – what’s that about? ‘The other performance is more complex. It’s a 30-minute loop that will be choreographed and scripted. It’s a pas de deux effectively, with a looped video that also takes place in the show. So they loop together, the performer and the video.’
Are you going to perform? ‘No. It’s been a practical necessity to split the performances between a roster of performers because of the show being on for so long, and open ten hours a day. And it’s been my intention to include men and women. I like that blurring of sexes and sexualities and genders. It’s an ongoing thing in my work.’
So you're passing up the opportunity to get your kit off? 'I’m not going to deny that that impulse is part of me. I do have this weird conflict, a duel impulse of being on the one hand a massive show-off who wants to be the centre of attention and on the other hand being debilitatingly shy and just wanting to hide. I think my work comes from the meeting point of those two qualities.’
Are you interested in seeing how people react to your work? ‘At my White Cube exhibition in 2013, I was [performing] in the show, so I got to see the audience. That was fascinating because you’d see the full spectrum of responses, from people who’d come in and whose faces would open up with total surprise to people who actively tried to convey their dismay and disgust. They’d raise their eyes, turn around and walk straight out. Some people were shouting.’
You get hecklers? ‘Yeah. But I want to see this show as much as possible. That’s been the nice thing about working in an institutional show in my home city, and a show in such an idiosyncratic space: I’ve been able to come here and measure it out, imagine it in a real way by being here rather than in an abstract way over email.’
Do you feel a bit like a director? ‘Very much so. I and a lot of my contemporaries work that way, where it’s less about being with your hand in the bucket of plaster and more about sending instructions around to a variety of producers.’
Do you enjoying working that way? ‘I’d never want to be one of those artists who hands everything over to other people, because I do like having my hand in the bucket of plaster. A lot of the work has that potentially contrasting, slightly jarring combination, where there’ll be something hyper-industrially produced paired with something very handmade. Some of the work in this show will have that quality, I’m trying desperately to avoid using the word “juxtaposition”…’
What’s wrong with ‘juxtaposition’? ‘I just hate art words. “Slippage”. Who the fuck started using “slippage”? I hate it, it’s so gross!’
Talking of art terms, how do you feel about comparisons between your generation and the YBAs? ‘I’m not going to say that abbreviation, but I think none of us feels comfortable with being likened to a certain other group of British artists from relatively recent decades! The one thing I do find quite frustrating is constantly seeing adjectives like “young” next to my name. I think I’ve read that I’m a young artist who came to prominence while still at the RA about 5,000 times. It’s frustrating for me because during that period I was five or ten years older than many of my fellow students.’
Isn’t the ‘young artist’ label down to your subject matter? You use a lot of pop-cultural references. You even have your own record label. ‘Yeah, it’s easy to hang it on youth culture. I understand that and I’m okay with it, but when it’s “who’s this pseudo-teenager getting his dick out?” it feels undermining.
How would you describe your work to somebody who hasn’t seen it?‘Varied. Which sort of escapes the question!’
Do you have any studio rituals? ‘I have to procrastinate for about seven hours before doing anything productive. I’m not even joking. Reading 10 million different Taboola articles, BuzzFeeds, looking up videos of cats falling off shelves…’
Do you have a favourite London artwork? ‘I always return to “The Ambassadors”, the Holbein in the National Gallery. It’s so weird, it could have been made today with that layering, that memento mori – the thing that’s from an unnatural space superimposed on a naturalistic space. It requires two very different types of engagement. And visually it’s just fucking stonkingly compelling!’