Performance artist dresses up academy's act with sole

An AHRC fellow tells Olga Wojtas how foot-washing and drag acts feed into his practice-led research

May 29, 2008

Adrian Howells spent this week's Bank Holiday washing people's feet in the West Midlands.

Foot Washing for the Sole, a new piece of performance art, was devised by Mr Howells, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Creative Fellow at the University of Glasgow, after a visit to Israel with a drag act featuring his transvestite alter ego, Adrienne.

Mr Howells, a drama graduate of Bretton Hall College, began as a pantomime actor. But he changed direction after meeting the director Stewart Laing and performance artist Leigh Bowery. In 1993, they put on a production of comic-strip artist Copi's play The Homosexual, or the Difficulty of Sexpressing Oneself at Bagley's Warehouse in London.

"Time Out described it as a hymn to tastelessness. I blacked up and was an Asian transsexual with a Carry on up the Khyber accent."

But Mr Howells has never aimed to shock for its own sake. The Copi play raised questions emerging from queer theory and considered how gender and sexual identity were categorised and socially constructed.

"Leigh was a fiercely intelligent man. He represented the thought process of 'if things are taboo, let's go to the extreme and make people question why'. (In the play) he wore a coat of 36 fox furs - why do we get upset about that but not the daily mass slaughter of chickens?"

About seven years ago, Mr Howells became a solo artist. "I'd had my fill of speaking other people's words. It coincided with quite an intense period of psychoanalysis. I found that I didn't want to be an ego-led performer, but one who tried to genuinely engage with the audience," he said. "I'd always believed ever since I was in college that art should be useful, helping people engage with important questions of life."

Mr Howells's character Adrienne allows him to explore issues of identity and disguise. He jokes that she looks like the EastEnders character Pat Butcher, "or Pat-Couldn't-Be Butcher".

Much of his work is one to one, and Adrienne's largest audience is 25: they sit on sofas and armchairs in her "living-room". She welcomes them with a cup of tea and a sticky bun or lollipop before explaining that although she might look like an intimidating, confrontational drag queen, she is very caring and will not put anybody on the spot.

The audience helps determine the performance by selecting from a menu of autobiographical stories that Adrienne presents, but they are also encouraged to tell their own stories. "There is no text - I want it to be spontaneous. Of course I'm ultimately in charge, but I sometimes let the audience run with the ball."

The British Council saw him at the Edinburgh Fringe and invited him to join its International Showcase: in March, he went to Israel to perform as Adrienne at a Women's International Festival. An Israeli documentary film crew recorded his visit, which included his attending an Orthodox Jewish prayer meeting after which elders told him that homosexuality was an abomination.

The experience stirred him to create the foot-washing performance, inspired by Christ's washing the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper. He considers Foot Washing for the Sole to be a response to the "predominantly patriarchal, bigoted, sexist and homophobic" teachings of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. "If a religion isn't about peace and love, what really is its value?"

In the performance, which was presented this week in Birmingham as part of the Fierce Festival, Mr Howells washes and dries participants' feet, anoints them with frankincense and finally asks permission to kiss them. He encourages participants to talk by asking, for example, about their relationship with their feet. "I'm trying to create a space that's loving and nurturing."

He plans to return to Israel in October and perform the work for both Jews and Muslims.

He created the performance as himself rather than as Adrienne because he is conducting practice-led research during his three-year creative fellowship in Glasgow's department of theatre, film and television studies.

"I felt that if I'm looking at issues of intimacy and risk, I need to dispense with the mask," he said. "The department has been very theory-based, and it's very important that my research findings are disseminated back into the department."

His research experiments include The 14 Stations of the Life and History of Adrian Howells, which leads participants through 14 created sites via which he "confesses" the suffering he has endured as a gay man and the pain he has inflicted on others.

Another is Held, which takes place in a flat: Mr Howells first holds the participant's hand in the kitchen, then puts his arm round them in the living room before leading them into the bedroom and lying beside them.

The ethics committee at Glasgow has been wary of allowing research volunteers to be filmed. This does not faze Mr Howells, who sees the performances as ephemeral and simply makes notes afterwards. But academics keep demanding film footage, and a departmental colleague may play the role of a participant to facilitate recording.

"Before the fellowship, I very much created work through intuition. I actively research now, and part of this is reading. I'm rubbing shoulders daily with academics who introduce me to intellectual concepts I wouldn't get introduced to outside this environment," he said.

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