At first glance, Eddie Peake’s studio is fairly nondescript. It’s in the unglamorous London borough of Peckham, in an airy converted garage with whitewashed walls and a large glass door. The floor is speckled with splashes of paint, there are half-finished canvases hanging around the room and there’s a stained desk pushed to one side. So far, so normal. But plastered above that lone worktop are three explicit, A4-sized notes to self.
“Shark blow job pics” the first reads. “Choreographed boys with erections” another says. The last one, under the heading “Titles?”, list a series of seemingly unconnected thoughts: “Genitals. I Miss Ur Genitals. Making The Performance. Head. Desperation.” It goes on.
But these cryptic notes may be the best insight into Peake’s work, which often explores peoples’ attitudes to sex, sexuality and gender. The now-35-year-old artist started thinking about these topics when he was still a postgraduate student at the Royal Academy Schools, where he staged a naked, five-a-side football match as a piece of performance art he called Touch.
“Touch is still always talked about,” Peake admits. “There’s this phenomenon that occurs with performance art quite specifically, where many more people end up knowing about it than experiencing it first hand. And it always reminds me of that folkloric myth about how if you added up all of the supposed reliquaries of Jesus Christ that exist around the world, he’d be 100 feet tall. And indeed at the actual performance of Touch, there were actually about 200 people there. But, if you add up everyone who knows about it, who claims to have experienced it first hand, or who’s written about it, they would fill Wembley Stadium, you know?”
“But I don’t want to undermine my own work ’cause I do think Touch was a very brilliant piece actually,” Peake continues. “A lot of aspects of it chime with things that are quite contemporary concerns to do with the body, vanity and that self awareness of one’s image and identity – specifically in relation to men. I think we’re very accustomed culturally to the sight and fetishisation, frankly, of the female body. So it’s quite refreshing, I suppose, for a culture at large to be offered the opportunity to enjoy the male nude.”
Despite these conceptual ideas, Peake first used nudity in his work for very different reasons. “I was trying to explore or find ways of making art beyond painting,” Peake remembers. “And I was trying to make basically everything and anything but painting. And I started working with the body first as a sort of pragmatic and practical response to that, just because it’s available. We have it. You can do stuff with it really easily.
“And so some of the first things I did were video performances to camera, doing stuff with my body, often quite sexual and gross. And photographs.”
As he did then, Peake still works in a variety of media, including photography, performance, video and painting, to which he has returned. “One reason that I work in so many media is that I love making work and I love being an artist – I have lots of ideas and I want to make them all,” Peake explains. “I’m not a painter. I’m not a sculptor. I’m not a video artist. I’m not a performance artist. I’m an artist who makes exhibitions, and that’s where I think all the dots get joined up.”
Exhibitions are so important to Peake because they’re the one time that all his different works can co-exist and interact. A performance can take place in front of a painting, for example, or some writing can be collaged over a photograph. Peake took this idea to a whole new level during his exhibition at the Barbican in late 2015, when he hired 11 naked dancers and six roller skaters wearing sheer onesies to inhabit the space during opening hours. Every day of the exhibition, the performers mingled with the audience and riffed off the visitors’ responses to them, turning the show itself into a three-month-long work of art.
Almost all of Peake’s exhibitions include brightly painted canvases that are emblazoned with snappy sayings. Hanging in his studio when I visit is a present for his gallerist in Rome, Lorcan O’Neill, which reads “Sexy Arse Daddy.” A canvas hanging on the opposite wall says “Eddie Peake Run Tingz”. These phrases seem as if they could’ve been copied word for word from graffiti in a London public toilet, or noted down after hearing a chat between two teenagers on the tube.
Allusions to London pepper lots of Peake’s work. He’s a lifelong Londoner and grew up in the north of the city as part of a large, artistic family: his father Fabian Peake is an artist and writer, his mother Phyllida Barlow is a sculptor who’s going to represent Britain at next year’s Venice Biennale, his paternal grandfather is the famous writer Mervyn Peake and his maternal great, great, great grandfather is Charles Darwin.
But this illustrious family history wasn’t what pushed Peake towards art. “I think I was quite resistant to making art until I was about 18, when there was a whole variety of changes going on in my life,” Peake muses. “I was about to drop out of school. For one reason or another, I fell out with a lot of my friends at the time. I was very depressed. And then I just happened to be making some paintings at the time – it was like a school assignment for my A levels. And by a kind of miraculous fluke, I both enjoyed making them and thought they were really good.”
Although art offered at this point “a sort of ray of hope”, Peake is reluctant to describe art as therapeutic. “Incidentally, about 10 years ago I was in a very bad way and I spent some time in a psychiatric hospital,” he reveals. “They did art therapy. I went along to all of these things but I didn’t tell anyone I was actually an art student. It would’ve been really dickish. But I don’t really like the idea of art as therapy. As a job, I love it, but it’s also my day-to-day job, rather than a therapeutic escape from the tribulations of everything that was going on in my life at the time.”
And like any day-to-day job, sometimes Peake’s art doesn’t progress quite the way he wants it to. “I wish this were not the case, but I haven’t got very far on the work for my Hong Kong show,” he admits. “But I fell in love with Hong Kong when I visited in March, literally in the cab journey from the airport.
“That tropical climate, that constant humidity. It felt very futuristic to me – I’m a big fan of Blade Runner and I got major Blade Runner vibes. So I want it to be an experiential show. I want there to be wall-based paintings. I want there to be sculptures. I want sound elements, so I want speakers in the space. And potentially a performative element as well. I want it to be an all-encompassing, subsuming work that the viewer actually walks into.”
Eddie Peake’s exhibition Where You Belong is on at White Cube in Hong Kong from November 25 to January 7, 2017.