Lez Miserable: the teaches of Peaches

Eleanor Margolis meets the high-priestess of sexually charged punk electronica and singer of <em>Fuck the Pain Away</em>, <em>Diddle My Skittle</em> and <em>Tent in Your Pants</em>.

On stage, Peaches, the 46-year-old high priestess of sexually charged punk electronica, is wearing a ruff of oversized breasts with Barbie heads for nipples. She sits, open-legged, as two female dancers in their knickers, one sporting a goat mask, the other a unicorn, simulate cunnilingus on her. As the singer of Fuck the Pain Away, Diddle My Skittle and Tent in Your Pants, she is surprisingly reticent when I ask her, just the day before her gig at the O2, if she’s ever wondered what the most perverted act performed to her music might be. “No, I’ve never thought what it is. But I imagine it was pretty filthy,” she says, with an almost nervous laugh.

The artist who provided the soundtrack to my teenage sexual fumblings is sitting opposite me outside the BFI bar, dressed in black and looking unassuming. Her outsized sunglasses highlight her gamine, sparrow-like features and she reminds me of a riot grrrl Edith Piaf. Currently on tour, promoting her film – Peaches Does Herself – the musician/director is chatting excitedly about the autobiographical rock opera, which recently made its UK debut at London Sundance.

“I’d describe it as an anti-jukebox musical,” she says. A reaction against We Will Rock You-style musicals, Peaches Does Herself uses the artist’s music to tell her own life story, rather than a completely unrelated, irrelevant narrative. “I like the music of Queen, but once you put it in a jukebox musical, you have nothing to do with Freddie Mercury. It’s lame.”

“I am a fan of the style of opera where you can tell a complete story just through the music and through the songs,” she says. In making Peaches Does Herself, Peaches set herself the challenge using the songs from her four albums to create an autobiographical narrative. The result is a brilliantly freaky pornographic ballet. As it happens, one of the leading roles is played by trans porn star Danni Daniels, who used to be a professional ballet dancer. As you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by 70s musicals like Rocky Horror, Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise, it’s gender-bending, glam and utterly Dionysian. I ask Peaches if she was also inspired by cult director John Waters. “You’re probably referring to Sandy Kane as the quintessential John Waters character,” she says. Indeed I am. Stripper turned comedienne Sandy Kane plays Peaches’ foul-mouthed, slightly wicked, fairy godmother.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Toronto become alternative music’s doyenne of dirty? After all, the only echo of Jewish culture I can find in Peaches’ music is the rhyming of “menorah” with “labia majora” in the song I’m The Kinda.“My parents were quite liberal people, but we did grow up with two sets of cutlery.” Peaches, who was born Merrill Beth Nisker, is referring to the Jewish kashrut rule about using separate cutlery for meat and dairy. But was she ever a “nice Jewish girl”? “No,” she says laughing, “I was spaced out, that’s for sure. I would deliberately space out in Hebrew class because I didn’t understand why I had to learn this language. I would occupy my mind with other things.” Peaches found little outlet for her creativity at school and disliked the fact that music and plays were used purely to impress the parents. “I didn’t get why we weren’t learning to sing – just told to sing and if you get it wrong, you’re dead in the bath.”

“I didn’t realise you could be a musician,” says Peaches, “And I didn’t really know about art. I have a great family and intelligent parents, but they weren’t passionate about art. They listened to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.” Originally drawn to theatre, rather than music, “That’s what creativity was to me,” Peaches studied theatre direction at university and began a career as a theatre director. “Then I took acid one day and said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Peaches explains, “I thought by the time I turned 30 I’d have a nervous breakdown or something. Working with actors and sets, and yelling at people – it just seemed like too much to handle.”

“I fell into music really,” she says of her sudden career change, “I started playing it. I had one gig with my girlfriend, we played acoustic guitar. They liked us in this club and asked us to play there every week.” Peaches, then still Merrill, started out as a folk singer in Toronto. Enjoying writing songs and the immediacy of music, compared to theatre, she broke away from folk, “I was playing acoustic guitar and I was like – why am I doing that?” and entered an experimental phase. Her first band was called Fancypants Hoodlum: “I would sing crazy. I knew a guy who played bongos, so I asked him to be my drummer, I knew another guy who played weird EBow guitar.” Her next band, The Shit, was formed when she began jamming with fellow Canadian musicians Mocky and Gonzales. “We’d just sing songs that we’d spontaneously write in the room, about each other, about wanting to fuck each other, or whatever.” Were these jamming sessions drug-fuelled? “Just pot,” she says.

Soon after forming The Shit, Merrill Nisker became Peaches. She named herself after a character in the song Four Women, by Nina Simone. So is Peaches her Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego? “No, I’d say more an extension of me,” she says, “I love Bowie and I love everything that he’s done for culture and music… but I feel I relate more to someone like Iggy Pop.” Peaches collaborated with Iggy on her 2003 single, Kick It, which was the first song of hers I ever heard. As a sexually confused 14-year-old, Peaches’ clever, fiercely erotic lyrics scratched an itch. A very itchy itch. As an outsider at school, her music reminded me that being different was badass. So, how does she feel to be a role model to young queers? “I just feel responsibility to be myself and I hope I can inspire people to continue to be who they need to be.”

Since releasing her debut solo album, The Teaches of Peaches, in 2000, attitudes towards her brand of sexually-liberated electro-rock have certainly changed. With artists like Lady Gaga, arguably a diluted version of Peaches, hitting the mega-mainstream, has what Peaches does become less edgy? “I’m not trying to be shocking. I’m glad that I can be mainstream and still be who I am – I don’t have a problem with that.” But Peaches feels that attitudes are becoming simultaneously more open and more closed – “I think there are just more people,” she says, “There are Mormons. And they’re growing too. Everything’s growing.

I ask Peaches if she feels that women in music have a responsibility to push feminist ideals. What of mainstream female artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who are openly ambivalent towards feminism? “I think that’s dangerous,” she says, “I mean, what do people think feminism is? Feminism means equal pay for men and women. I just think people should realise that all women are feminists and there’s no way around that.”

When members of that standard bearer for musical feminism, Pussy Riot, were jailed last year, Peaches quickly became a loud voice in the call for their release. I ask her what drew her to the cause. “It’s a suffocating, horrible situation for women and artists in Russia,” she says, “they’re bringing attention to it and by this they are the essence of art.” What’s more, Peaches, who lives in Berlin these days, feels that, had she been born in Russia, she would probably would have been involved in something like Pussy Riot: “I was like – I need to support this, because this could’ve been me.” She is still in contact with some of the band members and met up with Katya Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October last year, in Moscow earlier this year. “She’s just an incredibly brave person.”

“It’s grim,” she says of the situation of the two Pussy Riot members still in prison, “They don’t give you medicine if you’re sick. They have to get permission to get outside medication. And it’s inhuman labour work that they’re doing.” At the O2 the next day, Peaches ends her gig with the song she wrote for the band and has the crowd chanting, “free Pussy Riot!”

So what’s next for Peaches? Despite the release of the single Burst, last year, she tells me that there isn’t an album on the way. “I’m just making music and seeing what I like,” she says. She tells me about her recent collaboration with burlesque performer Empress Stah, a song called Light In Places You Didn’t Know It Could Shine, about a laser butt plug. Noticing my bewilderment, she explains that this is an object used in Empress Stah’s performances. Only Peaches could make me feel silly for not knowing why a person would want to shoot a laser out of their arse.

A still from the film Peaches Does Herself.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage