The piercing cry of a group of mourners is an incongruous spectacle on a bright September afternoon in London Fields.
And so passersby, some walking dogs, others mid-jog, gathered in curiosity last Saturday whilst five women, dressed in black, emitted spine-chilling wails as hunks of clay slipped through their fingers onto a glossy mirrored dancefloor.
Amid occasional strains of the cello, the mourners performed their dance of death. Holding bright pink scarves aloft, they flopped to the floor and shrouded their heads, before rising again in angry defiance.
Baffled onlookers may have felt relieved to learn that these vocal lamentations were part of a performance based on the Celtic custom of ‘keening’, where professional mourners in Irish and Celtic traditions grieve the losses of others on their behalf.
Keening dates back as far as the sixteenth century, and involves one or a group of women reciting or singing verses about the deceased, often to physical movements such as rocking, kneeling or clapping.
Artist Florence Peake devised the public performance, which is to form the basis of the inaugural exhibition at Space Studios’s new gallery next month.
Peake, a painter and choreographer who lives in Walthamstow, learnt about keening from her Irish mother-in-law, but has abstracted the tradition and applied it to what she calls the “commodification and instrumentalisation of art by the corporate world”.
During the performance, the keeners stood behind a microphone to make lamentations about the state of modern culture. “It makes me angry so I had to leave. In the mix of city, dereliction, hedgelands, industrial landscapes and space, will we all just get squashed?” they recited in ghost-like monotone.
In total, the dancers mourned around 40 ‘losses’, all of which were submitted by the public. These ranged from angry outcries against gentrification in East London (see above), to the loss of Iggy Pop as a countercultural icon due to his willingness to advertise car insurance.
“Some of these losses are just beautiful and some really funny,” says Peake.
“One I find particularly amusing was the loss of someone’s usual cruising sites to the Grindr app.
“Then there are a lot about education, about parenting and the loss of unsupervised childcare, of children being able to play on the streets and things like that. And the loss of arm pit hair.”
London Fields was chosen for the performance due to it being common land (Lammas Rights for grazing animals).
The performance will form the basis of exhibition The Keeners, held at Space Studios’ brand new gallery space on Mare Street this month, which according to Artist Commissioning Manager Persilia Caton will comprise “another transformation of the losses”.
Peake is the first of four artists commissioned by Hackney arts organisation Space for their 2015/16 season. Each of the artists will be producing work that engages with Hackney’s past and present, and there will be a concerted effort to show art more publicly, outside of the traditional gallery setting.
Florence Peake: The Keeners, from 1 October, Space Studios, 129–131 Mare Street, E8 3RH. spacestudios.org.uk