In 1992, the French anthropologist Marc Augé birthed the term “non-place” in his text Non-Places: An Introduction to Anthropology of Supermodernity. A non-place, by Augé’s reckoning, was a space in which people became effectively anonymous. Once named, these identity vacuums arise in motorway service stations, the retail parks at the fringes of towns and cities, in brightly lit Travelodge hotel rooms and faded train station coffee chains.
In London, where supermarkets might have been were space not quantified in cost per square foot, stand contemporary art galleries. These former industrial buildings are stripped of identity and purpose, paved over with a uniform of unyielding white walls and polished concrete floors for one singular purpose: to showcase art without context. Which leaves me wondering quite how artist and Londoner Eddie Peake is going to transfigure Bermondsey’s White Cube from a characterless room into the “immersive and constructed environment” promised in the heady press release for his latest show Concrete Pitch.
Since graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2006, moving to Rome for a residency at the British School in 2008, then erupting from the RA in 2013 with a tabloid headline-grabbing final show, Eddie Peake’s multidimensional work across painting, sculpture, film and performance has caused a sharp intake of breath from the press, the public and even the establishment which spawned him. Eddie is known for his overt use of nudity and the unspoken sensuality that glistens alongside it, for his love of graffiti, football, dance, club culture and music, and for his elevation of those interests into artworks. A master of collaboration, Eddie’s foot soldiers travel en masse: in a squad of naked footballers at the Royal Academy, a fleet of naked roller skaters at the Barbican or a seasoned crew of pirate radio station DJs. But despite the many people who lend their hands and bodies to Eddie’s work, there is no question over authorship. Type your way to Eddie Peake’s website and you’ll be greeted by a close-up of the artist’s erect penis drenched in neon pink light, a virile assertion of self.
Such is the weight of the gaze on the body by the artist, his critics and commentators, with Concrete Pitch, Eddie Peake surprises by retraining focus from self to place. An exhibition turned visual ode to a recreation ground from the artist’s childhood in Finsbury Park, Stroud Green Road is remembered in Concrete Pitch through a winding metal sculpture which weaves across the room to greet the audience.
“In Finsbury Park, where I grew up, it was very socially diverse,” Eddie tells me. “I like the idea of this concrete pitch being a very simple, open plain that was inhabited by the very divergent social groups in the community. Today, a space like that seems quite urgently necessary given that the political moment existing now feels very divisive.”
Concrete Pitch exists in the strange space where past collides with present. Retired, for the most part, is Eddie’s now-signature nudity, which he seems to have tired of, or tired of talking about at least. Jostling for column inches in its place are the exhibition’s most everyday elements, which in turn makes them the most remarkable in the White Cube context. Packets of Chewits, lurid smears of blue and pink hair gel and speaker parts littered on metal trolleys are elevated to the status of sculpture. Canvases spray-painted delicately with graffiti paint become high art. Remnants of Eddie’s youth in Finsbury Park are scattered at every rotation of the head.
“I was really wary [of nostalgia],” Eddie admits. “I think nostalgia is a trap and it does the opposite to the idea of alienation. It’s very easy to get sucked in to hugging yourself non-critically and thinking, ‘Oh, it was so great back then when I loved…’ I think as we grow, we have a way of unconsciously editing our experience of the past. You only remember experiences as good or bad. I think the show is not a nostalgic one, but there are elements of my particular past, and my past as a shared experience with a community, that I think are quite interesting to remember and think about in relation to some political events in the last couple of years.”
Brexit, Trump, #MeToo: we’ve had our eyes and ears stretched wider than we knew to be necessary since the halcyon days of summer 2016. Concrete Pitch spreads them further still with two fundamental but transformative sensory devices in sound and light. Cult pirate radio station Kool FM occupy a purpose-built studio in the gallery, broadcasting a swan-song to anyone who has ever wrapped foil around their radio aerial. The broken beats of jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, streamed live from the White Cube to Kool fans across the world, are spliced with field recordings gathered by Eddie in Finsbury Park and piped across the gallery. A neon pink light leaks across the room, temporarily lending a disquieting atmosphere to the gallery and dissolving the very concept of the white box space. With that light, Eddie’s own identity, and the identities of all the communities he represents, flood into the White Cube Bermondsey’s South Galleries.
“That’s exactly what I wanted,” Eddie nods in agreement. “A slightly out of tone, disoriented experience. It’s slightly uneasy, slightly disquieting and disarming. There are lots of devices in the show to both inculcate the viewer into the show but also provide them with sets of choices and their own agency in terms of how they experience those devices and the works. The pink light was quite an early decision to flood the gallery with this levelling device so that all of the work is seen in this slightly jolting, slightly alienating bodily experience.”
Mouth, the title of the pink light, is an artwork in itself. In Concrete Pitch, Eddie employs it with Brechtian intent to alienate the viewer and make sure that they stay “mentally active and critical at all times” through Verfremdungseffekt, the device through which the familiar is made strange. “I say that,” he smiles, “but I also think it’s a sort of warm hug, this pink light. It’s an enveloping experience. I can imagine having a little lie down in there.”
Mouth’s pink might be described as Eddie’s signature hue: it can be found everywhere from paintings to his website. “It’s a colour that I always impulsively get drawn to use,” Eddie explains. “A lot of my paintings feature quite a loud, shouty fluorescent pink. One way of thinking about the show is as entering the inside of a body: there’s a lot of orificey tones. There’s a tunnel that, to me, could be a throat, an umbilical chord or an intestine. Walking through it, you get sort of spat out from an ear hole or a nostril or something. The pink light is also quite womby and labial.” Sensual, visceral, Mouth is a reminder that beneath the identities we painstakingly construct over our lifetimes, we’re all senseless tangles of flesh and bone.
Paintings, sculptures, film, light and sound may shout louder for attention, but Eddie’s body, covered with a clownish white boiler suit, lingers near the centre of Concrete Pitch. It is the longest running performance the artist has attempted, a durational piece re-performed daily for the two months that the show is open. Replacing the highly choreographed dance performances that Eddie has formulated in the past, the Concrete Pitch performance champions mundanity through repetition, calling to mind the looping actions of compulsive behaviour. “Ordinary” private activities become performances of self in the public realm: reading a book, emailing, watching his own past performances play out in film. Is it intimidating, I ask, to live out an exhibition, day by day, watched by your audience? “In fact it’s the opposite,” Eddie Peake replies. “To me this feels enjoyable. Out there — the real world — that’s terrifying.”
Eddie Peake, Concrete Pitch, will run until 8 April at South Galleries, White Cube, Bermondsey.