Somerset House Studios

SUBSTRAND: A Profile of Florence Peake

06 Dec 2018

A new blog series exploring the practice of Somerset House Studios artists, starting with Florence Peake whose recent dance works consider the body as protest. Whilst resident at Somerset House Studios, she has developed RITE, inspired by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and Slug Horizons, a piece exploring queer intimacy.

Pottery is, for the most part, practical. It has been made the world over for millenia: from the wide mouthed, combed surfaces of Jeulmun-era vessels in Korea to Ancient Rome’s glossy, umber fine wares. Earthenware was for most of time the primary means of cooking, storing, and serving food and drink. Perhaps because of this utilitarian idea, it also has a contemporary reputation as a polite art, and therefore, as Grayson Perry has frequently said, a deeply unfashionable one. But there is a sensual history to working with clay, too. Venus figurines — those fantastically bulbous, exaggerated objects — are thought by many historians to have served as fertility aids. Pottery then is also about the body: clay is kneaded, pots are pinched, and the necks of vases are elongated on the wheel. Potters talk about ‘the body of clay’.

Photo: Anne Tetzlaff

In a prelude to her most recent work RITE: On this pliant body we slip our WOW!, Peake played into this fertile, ritualistic history. In the early 90s, she had an experience with a channeller, someone who embodies a spirit, entity or personality from another space and time, and she became interested in the theatricality of possession. In Voicings people posed questions of personal, group and global concern to her and she responded with what she calls ‘psychic kneads’ or ‘energy portraits’: three clay figures representing You, Me, and Us. In this way, the work becomes a portrait of the viewer who asked the question, of the artist, and of the audience — all un-cynically drawn together in a collective formed of shared concern.

RITE, too, grew out of shared concern. Featuring five dancers writhing in six tonnes of clay, it is choreographed to the score of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Peake found unsettling parallels between 1913, the year the dance was first performed, and 2016, the year in which she wrote hers. Growing political tensions, a lean towards conservatism, and a notable increase in the public acceptability of fascism meant echoes of a great political fracturing were becoming too frequent to ignore.

But for Peake, the body is where hope lies. When The Rite of Spring was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris it was an unmitigated disaster. Although, contrary to lore, it wasn’t Stravinsky’s music that was deemed objectionable by the ballet going Parisian public, but Vaslav Nijinsky’s novice choreography. Described as ‘ugly earthbound lurching and stomping’ by historian Richard Taruskin, the piece must have been jarring in an arena thought to be intended for grace and elevation. But Peake draws on what she calls the ‘camp paganism’ of the piece, and takes from it themes of ritual sacrifice, labour, community, and fertility. The piece, she argues, celebrates the power of the body as an expressive force against conservatism.

Peake is railing against conservatism in her other, smaller, more intimate works too. Slug Horizons, for instance, is a work in which she and her partner Eve Stainton take turns painting each other’s vulvas, directly. She too is interested in the guttural mess, in the use of slimy substances — water-saturated clay, paint — to formally address the mess of the body, the mess of sex, and of sexuality. After the painting is over, with a small group of people formed around them, the couple exposes the inner life of their relationship. They begin to scissor and describe their fantasies to one another —  your tongue reaches into my eye and comes out through my vagina — private eroticsm and sexuality made public.

If Peake’s works are about the body, they are never only about the body. They are about the relational body: the lesbian body, the body’s connection to other people, other times and other realms, and the body in space. A good example of that tendency for breadth is The Keeners, a piece that features dancers mourning cultural and personal losses submitted by the public. The name is taken from the notion of ‘keening’, where professional Irish and Celtic mourners grieved the losses of others on their behalf. The Keeners abstracts this tradition and presents a collective grief in the form of a public performance to mourn 52 losses. Amongst them the closure of gay bars, the commodification of art by the corporate world, and the loss of Iggy Pop to a car insurance company.

The performance was situated in London Fields, which is classified as common land, and the work links to its history as a plague burial site. But the work also recalls the loss and grief experienced by artists working with materials. The pull she feels towards modernist figures like Stravinsky and dancer Martha Graham comes from a twin sense of earnestness and frustration. On the one hand she admires and longs for their conviction, their utter belief in what they were doing and at the same time she says, ‘Finding conviction is difficult in 2018’. She worries about creating a feeling that resonates, that has an impact: can dance be resistance? Can you move against conservatism? Can you speak anti-fascism with the body? 

Through addressing these questions in her work, Peake encourages us to find a way back our own flesh, to resist the technological directives that separate us from movement, and to foster care and respect for our own skin and the skin of others. It reminds us that we are never a singular body, that a collective, formed of the kinds of shared concerns Peake calls attention to, is also a kind of body.

Words by Cornelia Prior for Somerset House Studios