This month I attended a talk and workshop with artist Florence Peake at LU Arts. Having looked at her work on her website beforehand I was struck by how the physical power and presence of her work became diluted by a digital online review. In seeing her speak about her work, enact it physically through movement and voice was so much more powerful. Peake is an artist from a dance background and through performance she also works with objects and materials to create performances, installations, paintings, sculpture and drawing through movement.
RITE by Florence Peake at Palais de Tokyo, Paris : April 2018
Photography : Anne Tetzlaff and James Cosens
Peake's performance work 'Rite' uses the music of Stravinsky's 1913 composition The Rite of Spring to reference it's political context leading up to WW1 with it's provocation of a riot on opening night the music of the score is absent through most of the performance but was used to choreograph the dancers movements in relation to a body of clay. Thinking about the entanglement of emotion with material I was interested in how Peake spoke about the clay as a material that begins to shape and form the movements of the dancers; the transformation of the clay, the form that it takes becomes inextricable from the body in movement as water gets added with each affecting the other. The expressive movements in this way become connected through the materiality of the clay and the rising emotion in the music to the current political tensions as we experience the rise of the Right. You can see a short extract on Vimeo of her 'RITE: on this pliant body we slip our WOW' along with an interview with the artist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xf8lRwhsmQs but during the presentation we were given a longer showing of the whole performance at the De La Warr Pavillion.
Another work which really impressed and again connected emotion with the manipulation of clay was the 'Keeners' https://vimeo.com/142262420 which encompassed a public dance performance in London Fields. ‘Keeners’ (2015) was performed by a chorus of five female dancers, who drew on the Irish tradition of female professional mourners at funerals who enact 'keening' in order to grieve for lost loved ones. The 'keen' is a long guttural cry of grief which the performers enact to declare and mourn the personal losses that were gathered through a public open call. The performance 'keens' the commodification of art: the loss of something superficial becomes bound up with the act of keening - the crying, the squeezing of clay. There is something so abject that cuts into the body when you hear such a guttural cry like that which is performed and combined with the squeezing of the clay.
And when I look at these women I think of the cries of the mothers who lost children in Kathe Kollowitz's prints 'Mother and Dead Child' or the mother's who inspired Ana Maria Maiolino in the Plaza de Mayo who demonstrated after their children were abducted by the Argentinian government. And so, through this I am brought back sharply to a memory of my own child crying in agony, their body contorting on the pavement as they enact their defiant will for power over me and this memory collapsing (through the clay) into food as it is smeared across the high chair table or the shit as it is scooped out of the washable nappy. And with it are my own memories of anguish and pain in the many blows that knocked me horizontal in the early years of being a single mother. It is the combination of both that guttural sound and the squeezing of the wet clay that bring me here.
The workshop afterwards was an exploration of drawing through the moving body in which we were asked to work with a partner and then as a group to explore the body in movement. This session revealed the ways in which Peake thinks about the post human body and indeed several references to New Materialist Feminism surfaced in our discussions including texts such as Karen Barad's ' Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.' (2007), Jane Bennett's 'Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things' (2010) or Rosi Braidotti's 'The Posthuman' (2013).
Initially we were invited to close our eyes (to take away self-consciousness of others around us) and to think parts of our body as a sponge. This both focused the mind on a part of the body and created a quality to attribute to it. In isolating parts of the body I am invited to consider it (a hand, an elbow, a foot) as an object and to think about how these 'objects' relate to others in the world. In contacting a partner we slowly explored the surface of their body first through the hands, then through the spine and finally through the feet. As an intimate encounter with a stranger it somehow, unexpectedly, focused me on my own body and movements more than their body as it felt that my body was pushed into contact with another. We then swapped roles and I found myself sensing the qualities of another's body and I became aware of how bodies and objects in the world 'enact' my movements, how my body is ignited by the movement around me of others thus referencing Karen Barad's concept of 'intra-action' - a term created by Barad used to replace ‘interaction,’ and which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in action with each other. Intra-action understands agency as not an inherent property of an individual or human to be exercised, but as a dynamism of forces (Barad, 2007, p. 141).
Finally we began to take turns drawing around each other whilst in movement where Barad's concept of 'intra-action' really begins to visualise: continuing with the flow of movement that we had begun with eyes closed as the person 'drawn' we explored the surface of the floor with our bodies while the 'drawer' followed or chased these movements with a marker pen. What was fascinating about this experience was how clearly it defined the symbiosis or 'intra-action' of the drawing event. Neither persons bodies were in control and yet both were being guided by the other. Each time I tried to anticipate a movement as the 'drawer' my partner would surprise me by changing direction and whilst being 'drawn' myself I was never sure where the pen would be moving in relation to my body and so tried to work with the movements I expected her to make. The speed of my drawing as much as the marks I made became defined by the movements my partner made and once I settled into a focus of attention - perhaps drawing around the hands and feet as they moved - this focus would change and I would have to find an alternative part of the body to follow for the drawing activity.
In attending to movement through speed, isolation and repetition I am inspired to think about my own movements as a mother and how I might re-enact this through drawing and making.
There is finally, a work by Peake that is also inspired by new materialist thinking which explores the potential slippages between object and subject: 'Slug Horizons' is a collaboration with Peake's lover Eve Stainton in which through interaction sexuality and gender can be constantly reconfigured through a non-narrative engagement with imagery. Naked from the waist down the two women intermingle through a scissor action as they communicate through sexual fantasies in which their identities transgress boundaries of objects and identities, human and animal, time and space in a morphological orgy of excess.
Peake and Stainton state:
'Our research into slugs (terrestrial gastropod molluscs) looks at, their life, qualities, physiology, mating habits. We are thinking of how the slug, gynandrous and self reproducing, can be a visuali-sation for a continuously evolving queer future, and how its viscerality and generation of mucus for survival can inform and interrogate essentialist views of the vagina, the erotic female, lesbianism, what is meant by ‘ﬂuidity’ in sexual queer aesthetics.'
An excerpt from a transcription reads:
“I meet you in Sports Direct where I’m looking for some new trainers. You’re wearing that hat with Nike on the side. We get into the elevator and end up in a feminist zine headquarters, looking out onto a Martian landscape. Your tongue reaches into my eye and comes out through my vagina.”
I later think about this polyamarous potentiality for my own creative identity and flounder in resignation at my heterosexual small 'c' conservatism as a single mother. Peake is a year older than me and yet could not be further apart in her position to express her sexual freedom. Without children, and although married (to a tattoo artist), daughter and sister of artists, living in London and earning a living through university lecturing and arts council grants, (and whilst I have so much respect for how radical 'Slug Horizons' is in the current political climate), she appears without risk of 'losing' anything in presenting herself through such a progressive identity.
Performing sexuality whether polyamarous or otherwise becomes impossible when I begin to consider the risks such an identity might create as it collides with the lived experience of my maternal subjectivity. I think of how my identity is structured each day through my children and how they depend on my response to their every need in contrast to how desire and sex spills from adult idling and 'free time'. I think of the people who look after my children at their schools and clubs, their friends, the mother's of their friends, the neighbours, the doctors, the dentists, the nurses, the rugby coaches, the people in the supermarket or swimming pool, but most importantly for our family financial security, the panel in my interview as I apply for a teaching job. And all these people with their gaze on me weighing up my ability to be responsible, caring, self-sacrificing and sexless. And finally I think of their Dad - my ex-husband who would be happy to see me fall and looks for any opportunity to point out my failings in being a mother to his children. And there in being a single parent the risk of losing my children becomes starkly enacted in my imagination. All these people function in my life as a constantly shifting corset that binds my maternal identity to a non-sexual heter-normative woman. On meeting me how can others reconcile the expected qualities of motherhood with such a radical transgressive sexual identity?
This issue of maternal sexuality raises so many questions for the mother who is an artist. I recently watched the tragic life of Judy Garland unfold in the recent movie 'Judy' (2019) which portrays the ultimate incompatibility for mothers to exist in the world of cinema and the stage as the obsession with the self becomes central to an all-encompassing identity where art and life are intertwined. The film begins with her attempt to work with her children touring with them in Los Angeles in the 1960's, and demonstrates the harsh reality of such an ambition which, as it becomes destructive to the lives of the children, ultimately splits them apart as she is forced to make a decision between her life as a mother and that of an actress.
Even the possibility of a maternal sexuality is in question as it raises our own childhood memories of sexuality in relation to our mothers. How can maternal sexuality be visualised unless these questions are unpicked and this gaze upon the mother scrutinized?
Further information on 'Slug Horizons' can be found at:
Florence Peake website: http://www.florencepeake.com
You can also find an interview with Florence about the work here:
Barad, Karen. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bennett, Jane (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.
Braidotti, Rosi (2013) The Posthuman, Polity Press.