I was first due to talk to Eddie Peake on the day after his opening, until a bad case of flu saw him bed-bound for five days. It’s a strangely appropriate reminder that even the most outré performance artist is human too: fallible, vulnerable, subject to the whims of illness. I also find myself in the rare position of interviewing an artist about their exhibition after the reviews come in. What does Peake think of the response so far? “First of all, if I may say this, I absolutely love the show, I love it so much. Having that feeling lends me a certain amount of resilience.”
“One thing that comes up in relation to the show that makes me cringe a little bit is the word ‘nostalgia’,” he says, after a pause. “I understand why they’re saying that, because it is a show that looks back to a certain period of time, but it’s using that moment as a model or a template for how we share space within communities today, at a time when politics are very, very divisive.”
Peake has acquired a reputation for being bracingly candid: a notorious early stunt involved a website that was just a picture of his erect penis, and his most memorable pieces have included a five-a-side football game and rollerskating in the nude. As he puts it: “I like to do shows where I don’t leave anything at home — it’s all laid out there.” Peake’s forthright instincts have left him occupying a strange position in the art world: he’s highly collectable, but there are a few critics who view him in more sour terms.
You could chalk this up to his impressive family background, his mother being the Turner Prize-winning sculptor Phyllida Barlow (even though, despite being 73, her career began its ascent at around the same time as Peake’s) and his grandfather the writer Mervyn Peake, of Gormenghast fame. The nudity also seems to prompt an oddly pearl-clutching response from certain factions of the art-going public, despite it being playful and even silly rather than straightforwardly erotic. “I feel like people look at me as a sort of provocateur, which is really not how I see myself,” says Peake. “I find that reaction very indicative of our relationship culturally to nudity, sex, identity, gender.”
Is he misunderstood? His latest exhibition, Concrete Pitch, at White Cube, Bermondsey’s contemporary art leviathan, certainly suggests so. Centred around his childhood stomping ground of Finsbury Park, Peake puts under the microscope an accumulation of networks that connect city dwellers whether we like it or not, all of them specific to his adolescent experience: the drum-and-bass pumping across the radio waves from Kool FM, here transplanted into the gallery space in a lit-up booth; the buzz and clamour of north London’s Stroud Green Road, represented as a serpentine line of steel tables littered with hair gels and Chewits; the stark, floodlit expanse of the urban football pitch of the exhibition’s title.
“It’s not lost on me that this particular space in the White Cube gallery is also quite literally a concrete pitch,” says Peake. “The idea that this space is presented to an artist and the artist then fills it with their imagination, much like the people in the Finsbury Park community. In terms of how I want people to use it, I just want them to come to the show and enjoy it. I want it to be available to anybody. And so far that’s one of the things I’ve found really heartwarming – seeing such a wide range of people come to the show.”
Peake’s sincerity is endearing, and feels appropriate for an exhibition that perhaps looks at present-day London through rose-tinted spectacles – quite literally, with the main exhibition space bathed in a gentle pink glow. At a time when Britain has never been more polarised politically, Peake wants to create a utopian space for communities to come together, much like the pitch of the exhibition’s title, a site of congregation for the various communities that live in and around Finsbury Park. “The football pitch was always used in myriad ways: I remember as a teenager I would see huge picnics taking place. For me it was a place for sports, but in the same way as any freely accessible public space in London it was used however someone wanted to fill it with their imagination.”
That’s not to say Peake doesn’t occupy a central position as part of the exhibition. Roaming around every day in a variety of guises, Peake turns himself inside out. “One analogy I enjoy thinking about the show in terms of is as though the viewer is entering a body,” Peake adds. “The pink is like the colour of orifices: it could be the colour of a labia, a penis gland, nipples. The long tunnel-like piece in the show could be a fallopian tube, or a throat or an anal passage. Walking into it is like entering an orifice and being spat out of another orifice at the other end.” Even in his most earnest moments, there are still remnants of his previous, more body-fixated work.
To understand the exhibition as an exercise in narcissism, however, is to miss the point. It’s a mega-installation that has community at its heart: micro in its subject matter, but macro in its ambitions. Tracking the possibilities of collaboration and commonality in an increasingly fractured city, it’s the perfect distillation of London in 2018 with its hubbub of languages, cultures and social groups. It’s easy to be cynical, but it’s even easier to lie back and let its frantic rhythm wash over you.
Conversation turns to the idea of entertainment in the gallery space, something at odds with the po-faced seriousness of many contemporary exhibitions. “It was my hope that the show would be used in the way it is being used,” says Peake. “I suppose the most crude and obvious example of that happening is so far lots of people have come and quite literally had a mini-rave in front of the Kool FM booth. It does warm my cockles every time I see that happening.” He’s right: it’s refreshing to visit a show that prioritises entertainment, offering the perfect response to his detractors — an irresistible statement of charming, cheeky confidence.
Eddie Peake: Concrete Pitch runs at White Cube, Bermondsey until April 8, 2018.