How to make sense of our lives? If you’re inclined to take this as a moral question, don’t. It doesn’t ask how we should or ought to live. It wonders how we understand our experience of being. We can think of this as a kind of sensuous knowledge. It’s the day-to-day practice of reflecting meaning in and out of existence despite the creeping conviction that to the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ there is, in all likelihood, no satisfying response.
We’ve come to expect critical contemporary art to tarry with existential issues. Yet the practice of Aaron McPeake doesn’t instruct us on reconciling the apparent meaninglessness of this absurd world and, indeed, McPeake is unlikely to see himself as addressing such a grandly intractable concern. His interest in producing sensuous knowledge seems to spring from a different desire: to offer us compelling encounters with forms and materials in throes of transformation. McPeake’s videos document bronze pouring, ice melting, shadows recast as silhouettes, while many of his sculptures only find full expression when struck or otherwise engaged, literally. This approach is physical and direct in ways that render McPeake’s art deeply experiential. It reminds us we’re alive.
McPeake came to visual art through a career of lighting design for the stage: opera, plays and other dramatic performances. His recent work retains an interest in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary through technological means, lighting among them. Whatever the process or medium, though, a sense that ‘matter’ matters preoccupies this art—though it’s more than ‘stuff n’ things’ that undergo change in McPeaks’ work. At its best it elicits an existential identification, prompting us to meditate on our own being in flux. As McPeak’s artworks pull and hold us, their embrace seemingly guided by a desire for sustained encounter, they remind us that although always changing, we’re not alone. Change, in fact, is something we hold in common. McPeake’s art goes the distance to meet our personal need to feel as though our change – what happens to us – matters.
The phrase ‘our personal need’ shares with McPeake’s art the possibility of striking a balance between the subjective and the objective as different but interdependent modes of making sense, of gaining sensuous knowledge, of self and beyond.
It’s so easy to succumb to lopsided views of who we are. For some, it’s all about ‘me’: my feelings, my issues, my challenges and my accomplishments. Whether good times or bad, ‘You couldn’t possibly understand because they’re happening to me’.
For others it’s all about ‘us’: our shared needs based on what’s required for each to survive. In extreme cases ‘me’ supplicates to the collective will. Rolling over, ‘me’ decants the individual subject as the ‘m’ turns into the ‘w’ and ‘me’ becomes ‘we’. The result? ‘We stand in solidarity’ but also, ‘We are the only hope against them’.
There are many reasons why ‘us/them’ is a central organising principle of the post-millennial zeitgeist but there is one that is core. With the whittling of the welfare state and the dominance of neoliberalism, there are no guarantees that ‘our personal need,’ however modest, will be met, either now or in the future, because here’s the thing: the needs of others, a select few, may well matter more. Equally in art: Whose needs take priority? What balance is required between meeting those of the artist in their practice and the needs of others, those encountering artworks, later, sometimes decades after they’re produced and in contexts incognita: the slipstream of becoming.
If the coupling of these concerns strikes you as odd then you don’t know the practice of Aaron McPeake. One aspect of his post-conceptual approach is this: McPeake demonstrates ways to accept and live with, indeed to embrace, the complementary positions of self and other and now and later, in art as in life. He does this not with reference to politics or theory per se, which should not suggest his practice isn’t either critical or political. It’s rather the case that McPeake engages with matter in a way that sublimates the conceptual into sensuous encounter and in the process, (just) makes good sense.
This sensuous knowledge features in the body of work that McPeake produced as the 2013 recipient of the Adam Reynolds Memorial Bursary. This award ‘aims to support a mid-career artist or artists, looking to develop their artistic practice and build their profile…’. What this description doesn’t mention, though, is that Adam Reynolds died of muscular dystrophy after a distinguished but too brief career in contemporary art. Suffice it to say that Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, wrote his obituary.
McPeake’s own disability isn’t obvious when you meet him or encounter his artworks; the artist is legally blind. In 2002 he abandoned lighting design and returned to teaching and practicing art. A decade later he completed his PhD at Chelsea College of Arts, his thesis exploring the impact of lost vision on the visual artist and is poetically titled, Nibbling at Clouds – The Visual Artist Encounters Aventitious Blindness. Whilst the written aspects of McPeake’s doctoral project examine the apparent paradox explicitly and at length, the practical one – his artworks – engage with what it means to be a blind visual artist more obliquely.
A generous and inclusive approach, the artist’s commitment to working in ways that although deeply informed by his personal experience also transcend ‘blindness’, manifest in the body of work he produced for the Adam Reynolds award. For McPeake, this three-month residency at Spike Island (Bristol) was an opportunity for intense and experiential learning. There were materials. There were facilities. There were technicians. There were other residents with skills to exchange: a community of practice. These things mix together in a potent cocktail that for many artists is more powerful than drugs and definitely more productive than porn.
For McPeake this played out as a series of ‘learning episodes’. Auto-didacticism drives the artist, often compulsively, to experiment with material techniques and modes of understanding that buck convention. In the supportive context of Spike Island, a counter-intuition took shape: active unlearning through intentional practice. For instance, McPeake experimented with slate, trying to unlearn how to write. He was the first generation in his family not to master his ABCs on this fine-grained, foliated, heterogeneous metamorphic rock. To reference this historic break while anticipating the nearly-here future, the artist produced a cool and unapologetic keyboard made from an amalgam of slate dust that was pressed out of a mould. This sensuous object comes from an age when penmanship has gone the way of the dodo bird. Because there is only typing, children master shifting between numbers and symbols instead of the loopty loops of cursive script.
But McPeake also experimented with this technology from a bygone era. He tried writing and drawing on slate with chalk and as a child, a hankering for lost innocence that went unsated. Neither working blindfolded, nor left-handed, nor on his knees – none of these limitations helped the artist to either forget or productively unlearn. By his own admission, the renderings he produced looked, well, naff. One would expect this to be disappointing but that’s not how McPeake describes it. These shortcomings were less cause for concern than hard won celebration, evidence the artist was operating outside his field of knowledge and expertise and, in the process, enlarging it. In the words of a fellow Irishman also well known for is existential reckoning, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’.
A triple aspect – the dialogue between effort, experimentation and experience; an historical, literary or contextual reference; and a personal connection that often provides a proxy for others to encounter matter in the throes of transformation – is typical of McPeake’s work. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his singing bowls. They sound when struck, their vibrations stretching out in time and space as the mallet rubs their lips after an initial hit. In Asian cultures, including Laos and Myanmar where McPeake has worked extensively, bowls like these are carried by monks and nuns seeking food, money or other donations. In the context of contemporary Britain, it’s tempting to read McPeake’s versions as symbolic of widespread precarity, especially in the arts, with artists increasingly beholden to secure private support as cuts in public funding evidence austerity measures writ large. But within the body of work produced during the residency, McPeake’s singing bowls resonate with more immediate and personal significance: as both vessels and disseminators of knowledge acquired through his learning episodes.
Each bowl, cast from bell bronze, is distinct, its tonal qualities differing despite appearing similar to others in the series. When played individually, the bowls are greedy for our auditory, visual and haptic attention (it’s all about me). But when played together, they refuse to collapse into a single, centrifugal sound (there is only we). And even when two bowls are struck simultaneously, it’s never a faceoff (us/them) because other sounds also jockey for our attention: a dog barks in the night, a plane flies overhead, a cell phone rings…
The model of ‘making sense’ embodied in McPeake’s singing bowls points to the human need not only for deep and diverse types of encounter but also for the time/space to dwell in their significance. McPeake’s residency followed a similar logic. Like the bowls, his learning reverberates long after it can be perceived, with his experiments in unlearning also affirming for the artist what he well and truly knows.
So when it comes to the question posed above, ‘How to make sense of our lives?’ McPeake seems to suggest the answer resides with recalibrating our expectations. His artworks and practice challenge the clichéd aspiration of ‘a life well lived’ and prioritise instead something much tougher—harder to achieve but also more useful: a commitment to process, life as a process through which we’re transformed in unexpected ways, some we have control over but others we don’t. When it comes to making sense of our lives, we could do worse than to focus on sensuous experience, whilst accepting that its significance may only take its course as we’re faced with heretofore unimaginable challenges and opportunities.
 Aaron McPeake, ‘Nibbling at Clouds – The Visual Artist Encounters Aventitious Blindness’ (PhD thesis, Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London, 2013) available from www.ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/5871 accessed February 10, 2015
 Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, (London: John Calder, 1983), 7.