Born and raised in London, Florence Peake is a sculptor, performance artist, and dancer whose work has been shaped by music, film, and poetry, as well as a keen interest in esoteric and shamanic practices. In 2012, she won a major grant from Arts Council England, which supported MAKE, her seminal performance at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Peake’s cutting-edge works challenge stereotypes and conventions with a thoughtful intelligence, addressing themes related to her queer identity while exploring states of being, exchanges of energy, and ways of connecting to materiality. CRUDE CARE, her recent multimedia piece commissioned for “British Art Show 9,” is currently touring the U.K.
Romina Provenzi: Do you find that being based in London offers you greater opportunities?
Florence Peake: Being based in London is good, but you forget that the London art community is a bubble. It is easy to take for granted the progressive, liberal environment that we, in my queer community, are accustomed to it and to forget that it’s still common to experience homophobia in other parts of the country and around the world. At the same time, the London art world is tough and complicated to access, which creates jealousy and an unhealthy competition among artists because it rewards sole authorships with prestige and elitism. In places such as Manchester and Newcastle, there are more inclusive art communities and a lot of interesting things going on. I find it essential to spend time out of London for residencies and to allow myself to take a break from its competitive system; I had an amazing experience during my residency at the Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. It looks like things have started to shift though, as signaled by recent editions of the Turner Prize being awarded collectively, but I am not sure if this will be sustained.
RP: You studied dance and contemporary performance. Did it make any difference not to study at a formal art school?
FP: It can be more challenging in terms of a career since it takes more time to become established without the benefit of being part of the system. My training has been based in working with incredible artists as performers, performance-makers, filmmakers, choreographers, and visual artists. Basically I’ve spent my life studying and going to classes, because as a dancer, learning is much more integrated into your practice. For example, I studied Skinner Releasing Technique for four years in Seattle, then in New York, and in other places around continental Europe.
RP: Are there particular influences on your work?
FP: I am receptive to influences, but I can be quite fickle, too, moving through quite a lot without sticking to anyone in particular. I am influenced a lot by music, poetry, and films. I like Kate Bush’s music, Joanna Hogg’s films, and Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. My art practice has also been influenced by a number of choreographers and dancers—in the majority of cases, not very famous people, including Gaby Agis, Gary Stevens, and Joe Moran. As a young person, I liked Paula Rego’s paintings.
RP: How significant was MAKE to your development?
FP: I had worked on relatively small projects for a number of years, until I received my first substantial grant, from the Arts Council England. Finally, I had the financial resources to conceive and realize a body of work that was ambitious in terms of scale, and I was able to hire up to 10 dancers. MAKE is an exploration of the theatricality of sculpture-making, and it contains a reflection on the “white cube” space. It matters to me how sculptural objects are in relation to space, as well as how human bodies relate to the space and objects around them.
RP: As a sculptor, is it the touch of materials that drives your ideas and works, or the performative act?
FP: Sculpture is a solitary and private act for me compared to the rest of my practice. I love the fact that sculpture has an interactive and performative aspect to it, but it is the encounter of the body with an object that particularly interests me in my sculptural work. I explore how a body surrenders to the properties of the object, which starts to choreograph the body. It is a humbling experience, because there is the arrogance of thinking that human beings can inflict their ideas on objects, and not the other way around. It is all about the power of negotiation and the constant negotiation with materials.
RP: Your approach to clay is unconventional. Is it your way to feel connected with the earth?
FP: Clay moves, is unstable, and requires a constant negotiation, so I can’t avoid feeling connected with the earth when working with it. There is a kind of density in the material that I find amazing to experience. Clay is unbelievably bodily, and it creates a very direct link with my body, especially when I make larger-scale works like RITE: on this pliant body we slip our WOW! (2018). In this piece, the performers were naked, in and out of six tons of clay. It was undeniably a fully immersive relationship with the material itself.
RP: Questions of ecology and care of the environment recur in your work, and your approach to them isn’t dogmatic. How do you explore these ideas?
FP: My relationship with these themes is complex, and my approach isn’t dogmatic in any way. I like exploring the mirroring of the body in relation to geological processes because it has to do with muscularity and the intestinal. When we eat, digest, and discharge, bodily processes have an affinity with geology and the soil; there are similarities between what happens in this process and how geology is formed. I strongly believe that it is hard to make art about these ideas because as soon as an artist goes from using materials from the earth to making art about ecology and care of the environment, it becomes a contradiction in itself. I find the exploitation and unsustainability of rapacious extractive practices disturbing.
RP: Is the theme of spirituality present in your work?
FP: The word “spirituality” is far too generalized in relation to my work, which specifically explores states of being, energetic states, altered states of consciousness, and all the different ways of encountering and connecting with materiality. In 2013, at the Tintype Gallery in London, I exhibited Chorus: Swell The Thickening Of, which was inspired by the exploration of esoteric practices and palm readings. As part of the work, I developed some text from the readings, which was then recited by the performers and spoken from inside the sculptures—for some time, I have been interested in the energetic properties of objects and in having objects speak. I have always been excited to go deeper into consciousness, and so my work questions what is beyond and inside materiality, and what are the energetic properties of material objects. Rather than being interested in New Age aesthetics, I investigate the ontology of objects, beings, humans, and encounters in the world.
RP: As part of the “British Art Show 9,” you were commissioned to make a new work by Hayward Gallery Touring and the Aberdeen Art Gallery. Could you talk about this new group of pieces?
FP: CRUDE CARE (2021) consists of three works in one: a ceramic sculpture, a film (with Anne Tetzlaff), and a performance. It debuted in July at the sculpture court of the Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland; it’s since been touring England. I wanted to make a correlation between the extractive nature of the oil and granite industries that make up Aberdeen’s economic landscape, and the exploitation of care work and human energy in the U.K. during Covid. The sculptural work is a clay object made with care workers through a burial process to extract their bodies from underneath two tons of clay. The sculpture was fired and glazed after being divided and separated, just as land gets divided into sections and excavated. All the pieces were put back together after the glazing to create the final sculpture. The other two elements are a film, which partly explains the making of the sculpture, and a performance. The performance develops around a text that I wrote, based on visits to granite quarries near Aberdeen and workshops with professional care-givers working in and around Aberdeen that explored the weight of their emotional and physical experience within the care industry. In CRUDE CARE, the performers listen to my text in their ears, then recite the text, and the audience hears it amplified through the sculptural work. The work challenges conventions because, as soon as you put different things together—mixing different practices and disciplines—there is a new form or a new method or a new way of thinking that is created, like in an equation. I am into technique, but when things become too much about technique, it all becomes disembodied for me; my real interest within my art practice is feeling that there is a whole body with the different systems mixed, like the audio and the visual together, a hybridity.
RP: Your work challenges conventional behaviors and ideas in both physical and gender terms. Does your work get stereotyped within the art world?
FP: I worry about my work being defined by this kind of expressivity of the body that cannot be contained—actually, my work is very formal. There is a lot of methodology in my work; there is a system, and a lot of thinking goes into it. It is not just about a splurging of things. I find it extremely superficial to assume that an expressive practice doesn’t have thinking and intelligence within it, as well as formality and methodology, as my work does. So, I have an anxiety about the lack of appreciation and understanding of the depth of my practice, which has also undeniably suffered from sexism—a judgmental aspect emerges whenever there is the expression of emotional content in a work of art.
But after saying that, I must also admit that the words “expressivity,” “spirituality,” “trauma,” and “psychotherapy” are common in artworks now; just 10 years ago, a work would be criticized if defined by those very same words and themes. CRUDE CARE is based on work that I have done in community art settings, and a lot of those community-based art practices were sneered at once—though now it is a very trendy thing, which is amazing but also disturbing. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I used to earn money doing dance with patients in psychiatric units, and I worked with care-givers all the time. The spirituality aspect was hidden in my work.
Florence Peake’s CRUDE CARE is on view in “British Art Show 9” in Plymouth through December 23, 2021, traveling to Wolverhampton, January 22–April 10, 2022. For more information, visit https://britishartshow9.co.uk.