Florence Peake’s ‘Empathy Hole’ is an intoxicating collective monument to loss. Good Trouble sat down with the London-based artist to discuss her latest interdisciplinary work on the oppressive nature of being silenced.
“I always come back to this moment of the 2003 Stop the War march in London,” artist Florence Peake tells Good Trouble from her central London studio. “It was incredible. The sheer amount of people involved in the protest, the tremendous feeling of hope and power and mass of intention. There was this unbelievable energy and yet…nothing changed. Tony Blair still went to war.” Like many, Peake felt a deep sense of betrayal at the lack of impact of the march. Her current exhibition ‘Empathy Hole’ at Bosse & Baum gallery in London directly engages with the despair of having been silenced.
Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is drawn into a black hole of desperation and despair. The walls are painted a dark mahogany and on them hang paintings of screaming figures, captured open-mouthed, in tortured moments of anguish. What stands out is an oppressive silence. The raw violence of the figures’ emotion is immortalised and yet there is no sound to accompany their cries. “There was that feeling of however huge the reaction, it can still be silenced,” Peake says. “And that feels like the real violence we still encounter today, that inability to be able to get your voice heard.”
The screaming figures that appear in ‘Empathy Hole’ are painted representations of performers, caught up in their grief as they mourn a myriad of cultural losses for Peake’s 2015 piece, ‘The Keeners’. The work took its name from the notion of ‘keening’ whereby professional mourners grieve the losses of others in the Irish and Celtic traditions. After collecting instances of personal cultural loss through an open call to the public, Peake engaged the dancers to grieve each loss individually. The mourning ranged from the loss of the cherished gay/queer cultural spaces in the city to sadness over an altercated recipe for Patak’s Lime Pickle. “Back then I was feeling this grief around the huge realisation that nothing is sacred anymore, she says. “It felt like a strange omen in a sense for what is happening now.” ‘Empathy Hole’ reframes the performance art of ‘The Keeners’ for the present political moment and provides a cathartic space for those who are silenced to reflect on their grievances.
Peake’s work coaxes her audience out of a place of passivity. She demands a lot of her spectators, playing with degrees of engagement, separation and immersion. Her recent performance ‘RITE: ON THIS PLIANT BODY WE SLIP OUR WOW’ (2019) at the De La Warr Pavilion involved five naked dancers interacting and moulding a huge mound of six tonnes of clay. Her audience overlooks the huge clay pit with a sense that they are passive observers to the scene and safe on the sidelines. “The piece is very slow build over a period of half an hour,” Peake explains. “It’s only the last ten minutes that the clay goes everywhere. Suddenly the audience is covered in clay and there’s a sense of immersion. By the end lots of people said they just wanted to get into it.”
Peake’s work with the female body feels highly politicised. She engages in very intuitive, instinctive modes of dance that fight to reclaim physicality as political statement. “I think the intuitive body is a feminist issue in how it has been silenced or repressed in a way,” she tells me. “I feel very privileged in that I dance and can access a lot of different spaces that can connect with accepting a more instinctive language.”
For Peake, the body is a source of hope and redemption in these dark times. “Despite the political situation, I do feel like you have to keep doing things. And maybe the answers aren’t going to reveal themselves in a linear way, or as a black and white binary experience, but you still have to engage.” Peake’s primal bodies have become a vital force in her struggle for change. In her artworks, she creates a space for the body, and its audience, to regain their voice.
Florence Peake’s ‘Empathy Hole’ continues until 30 March 2019 at Bosse & Baum, London. Her work will be included in the Venice Biennale 2019.
Words by Kate Neave
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