Malcolm Peacock’s next in line at the peak of the valley, his spine bent forward as he surrendered to his choices (2023), is part auditory immersion and part tactile installation. The experiential setting presented for the occasion of Converge 45’s Portland biennial weaves a serpentine narrative of travel, loss, and kinship.
Visitors enter SE Cooper Contemporary in pairs to experience a location “where all individuals of the public can exist without the physical presence of surveillance,” according to the exhibition announcement. Surveillance here became a recurring adversary to contend with both in spirit and body.
Inside the gallery, Louisiana-based Peacock has constructed a circular, cushioned bed that fills the breadth of the room. Hand-braided coils of kanekalon synthetic hair fibers dyed in hues of forest green, olive, and gold are affixed to its surface in a spiral. The chosen color palette thus mimics a recognizable natural landscape — the golden disc in the center as the sun, the verdant greens perhaps its surrounding flora.
The sides of the bed are similarly interwoven, thicker braids tucked amid unstrung strands of the same fibers. Two pillows rest invitingly atop the constructed bed. When I laid upon it, his voice swelled and his recollection unfolded from a miniature speaker beneath my head. He encouraged a willingness to be at rest.
Peacock’s practice often considers how the intricacies of intimacy and the manner in which they’re presented shape understandings of lived experiences. As such, he begins his narration with an intimate retelling of a tale gifted to him by the late championship cross country runner Edward Gardner. A story that swallowed him whole and radically changed the course of his life.
Peacock likens Gardner’s memory of being a boy and a lonesome Black traveler in the Pacific Northwest to his own fearful first visit to Portland when he was followed by an unfamiliar truck. Peacock asks “what makes a landscape unattainable? What is more daunting than feeling perceived, of being the unwitting main attraction?” In the field recording, Peacock himself appeared to be in motion, a hurried breath catching at various points. His exertion and emotion set the pace. As Peacock spoke to a memory from Edward, whom he addressed tenderly as Eddie, I could similarly imagine him moving through thick groves of woodland.
In verse for the exhibition text, Peacock mulls:
My singularity renders me harmless.
I am no longer a screen used for projection. At most, I am an abstract idea.
By way of the recording, he recalls Gardner, in his mid-30s and warped by the thought of inner surveillance to the point of imagining himself as larger than the surrounding scenery. As something so singular, “so dark and other and sorely out of place he couldn’t possibly be contended with by the general public. [And] thus he began to feel he evaporated into thin air.”
With this invocation, Peacock accepts safety not as an expected physical privilege but as a necessary mental state. The wilderness, a space characteristically more treacherous for people of color, favors such extreme distancing. Yet, this reckoning also alludes to a certain power — that of perseverance and reclamation of the very same space.
Peacock’s tender account follows Gardner as he embarks on a 3,400 mile transcontinental journey from LA to NYC, during which time he meets Charlie, a fellow Black traveler with whom he bonds beyond all expectation. The harrowing odyssey takes difficult, sensitive twists and its climax is an affectionate melancholy. next in line at the peak of the valley… is an ode to a rare and beautiful companionship that met an unexpected fate.
Through audio, participatory sculpture, and memory, the exhibit poses the salient questions: “who are you carrying with you?” “When allowed the unencumbered grace of expansiveness, of sanctuary, what do you hear?” In this respite, Peacock’s voice echoes a single name. Like a chant, like a prayer, like an urgent memory blanketing the land.
Malcolm Peacock: next in line at the peak of the valley, his spine bent forward as he surrendered to his choices
Presented in partnership with Converge 45: Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship
SE Cooper Contemporary, Portland, OR
August 27th – October 15th, 2023