eddie peake and jeffrey deitch take new york
The young Londoner was chosen to open iconic New Yorker’s new gallery space in Manhattan and christen his return to the art world. We dive into Eddie’s spectacular, beautiful, and sometimes controversial performance pieces.
Eddie Peake is well on the way to being one of our generation's most prominent artists, and this weekend marked another high point of his career, taking over New York with a spectacular, all-nude performance entitled Head. Like his The Forever Loop solo show at the Barbican last year, Peake's debut on the New York scene was surrounded by a good amount of hype (coinciding with New York Fashion Week was perhaps a coincidence - perhaps not): mostly because it also marked the equally anticipated return of Jeffrey Deitch to the art world, after a hiatus that started with his dramatic exit from MoCa Los Angeles, where he served as Director until 2013.
The charismatic and omnipresent Deitch, who describes himself as curator, writer, art dealer, educator, and adviser, embodies the paradoxes that characterise the New York art world: entrepreneurial, quasi-celebrity, with an affection for the spectacular and larger-than-life. In those terms, Peake and Deitch are definitely a good match: Eddie was picked up by White Cube gallery only a year after his graduation from the Royal Academy and has since exhibited his youthful and instantly iconic works in significant institutions and spaces as diverse Peres Project in Berlin and Chisenhale Gallery in London. Peake's practice is photogenic, sexy, and inclusive to art world outsiders - tapping into art historical references without losing his distinct and light free-form rhetoric. That Deitch was an early supporter of Jeff Koons felt particularly apt as Head unfolded to the 200-people audience.
Five fully naked models - two women, three men - painted in various hues of metallic cyans and magentas, and dressed only (but fashionably) in white Reeboks, were already touring the space as guests entered Deitch's vast warehouse space, Wooster Street Gallery in SoHo. The performers notably returned the glares of the curious (and as dressed, superiorly positioned) guests, never avoiding eye contact and greeting the audience with their gazes as they were admitted. Two hooded (male) characters, equally fashionable, traveled amongst them, eventually claiming the musical instruments that were placed centrally on stage, producing a minimal beat that served as the performance's guiding rhythm.
The performance itself, almost an hour long, took the structure of a series of musical acts, exploring the tactics of group dynamism and (largely) non-verbal performance. Movements ranged from theatre to dance and back to performance: vogueing-style dance routines in perfect symmetry superseded into still, sculptural arrangements - followed by frantic and sometimes audible pacing around the gallery. As hued human objects in motion, this had a spectacular effect, almost like watching the movement of colours on a screen. As the performance unfolded, there were moments of ecstasy, softness, frenzy, and fragility - but mainly, Head operates in a registry of aggressive sexuality: routinely humping, ventilating genitals, screaming, gesturing pulling a gun at one's head - "Suck my clit, bitch!" screamed one female performer.
Even in 2016's state of hyper-visuality, there is something fascinating and somewhat unnerving in regarding the naked human body - as an object of visual aesthetic consumption in the flesh. Peake's work often explores the politics of looking, especially amongst men - his graduate piece from the RA, Touch, famously staged a five-a-side team football match with naked players, highlighting the fundamental homoeroticism in all homo-social "straight" behaviour. Head clearly evolved around ideas of desire and sexual performance, it repeatedly staged sexual encounters of various kinds such as masturbation, seduction, rejection, reconciliation, and penetration. This came alongside references to club culture. together, representing the dance-floor as a sexually-charged space. "Can I fuck you, please?' proposed one particularly handsome performer, painted neon blue, to the group - to which an unbodied female voice replied, "you'll never, ever fuck me." As the performers began to sweat from the intense and synchronised bodily labour, their distinct colours started wearing off on each other as they touched.
As a self-proclaimed "non-straight" straight male artist, Peake enthusiastically (and to some, controversially) engages with queerness in his work (he is the co-founder of London gay club night Anal House Meltdown alongside fellow artist Prem Sahib and George Henry Longly), interested as he is in the instabilities of sexual performance. In Head, this appeared with a girl "fucking" a guy from behind, simulated multi-gendered group-sex, a ballroom reference. With similar zeal, Peake dipped his toes into other cultural histories, all culminating rather explosively, as the hooded and empowered band increased the pace of their minimal beat (which felt more like a trendy necessity than an actual inquiry into the culture of techno), it forced the subordinate and naked performers to speed up their movement.
The male/female - dressed/undressed power-dichotomy felt too obvious to ignore as an audience - but had Peake thought of this basic conceptual arrangement? Similarly, the painterly traces on the white gallery floor from the dancing bodies clearly echoed Yves Klein' Anthropometries, in which the French artist used naked women as 'human paintbrushes' to experiment with automated forms of painting. In the similar way that Klein's crude appropriation of the female body as object is problematic, there seemed to be some pretty significant unresolved conflicts in Peake's show. The main problem being that in Peake's world, bodies are white, slender, cis-gendered, and hairless - and as a result, by definition un-queer.
Peake engages the idealised body - passed down to us from antiquity - as a body that is so widely idealised in pornography, on TV, in the nightclub space, and perpetually re-inscribed as the standard to which we should all live. Indeed, the grinding bodies of Peake's performers were beautiful: jumping and running together in perfect synchronicity, complimentary to each other. That is, paradoxically, exactly the problem, and what people find controversial about his work. There was no pain in the performance. Watching and feeling mesmerised by these beautiful, glisteing, normative bodies triggered in me a growing sense of uneasiness.
What are the politics of 'good taste' and sleek/attractive things - of both bodies and objects? What does attractiveness mean in relation to the market and identity? The result can be alienating, not only for any person of colour, but for anyone (which is almost everyone) who inhabits a body that is not that.
Eddie Peake skilfully does performance, and his practice is very entertaining, very spectacular, with an incredible aesthetic vocabulary. But what is to be expected from performance art today? Eddie's performances question how we think about the human body as object, after the body-politics of the 70s and the identity-politics of the 90s?
Text Jeppe Ugelvig
Photography Matthew Placek Courtesy Jeffrey Deitch Inc. New York