Confessions, Cuddles and Foot Washing

In his provocative performances, British artist Adrian Howells draws on biblical stories and his own experiences during visits to Israel.

If a grown man asked to wash your feet and then kiss them in the name of art, would you let him? And if you did, how do you think you would feel? Grateful? Awkward? Anxious about your cracked heels, foot odor or stumpy toes? Would you eyeball him suspiciously and think: Is that art?

To Adrian Howells' credit, his performances of "Foot Washing for the Sole" that took place in England and Israel are transformational. They propel even the most reserved spectator into an intense, collaborative situation - which may even give us hope, according to the British performer, for broader reconciliation in the Middle East, and is rooted in his own developing relationship with Israel. Not surprisingly, Howells is once again back in the country.

"Foot Washing for the Sole" evolved out of Howells' visit here last year, when the non-Jewish actor performed his autobiographical show "An Audience with Adrienne" in drag at the Women's International Festival at the Holon Theater. "I was the only man performing," Howells confides, somewhat proudly.

A subsequent visit to Jaffa gave him firsthand experience with the tensions between Jews and Arabs, which he says made a deep impression on him.

Later last year, when he was in the south of France reading books on Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Howells came across the story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet before The Last Supper. The generosity and modesty of the act intrigued him, but he interpreted it to be more than a Christian ritual.

"I realized it also related to the ablutions of Muslims before worship, and had the secular resonances of washing the feet of the elderly and infirm, and in India, when welcoming a guest into the home," he explains. His resulting effort explores the humanitarian themes - caring, nurturing and hospitality - and the equality embodied in this gesture.

Howells' performance addresses issues of trust, intimacy and cooperation. He relies on the audience members to relax into their role as participant. But how does one respond during a one-on-one performance? What is expected, and how much control does the participant have?

In Israel, as in the performances of "Foot Washing for the Sole" at Battersea Arts Centre, London, Howells invites visitors to take off their shoes before entering the performance space. This is the first of several "pacts" between the artist and each participant, he explains, whereby the latter must decide whether he or she will accept a situation of vulnerability and be "performed upon."

The participants open a door and enter a white, clean, tranquil room with soft towels, a huge basin and perfumed oils placed neatly on the floor. Howells starts out by taking seven deep breaths and the visitor is invited to join in, which helps to bring them together, according to the artist. Boundaries are dissolved further through the water, as the person's feet are washed with care - cleansed, soaked, rubbed and dried.

Constant gardener

There are moments that prompt Howells to request additional permission. "May I kiss your feet?" he asks, toward the end. If permitted, he does so gently, with a combination of care and sensuality. It's difficult to imagine that this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but the effect is immediate - whether it is a feeling of connection and acceptance, or of disconcerting ticklishness.

Howells' most recent project is "The Garden of Adrian," which opened at the University of Glasgow, where he completed a three-year research fellowship. Visitors walk through a shed that opens into a beautiful, miniature garden. Howells is the gardener and tour guide, who leads participants through seven stages and interactions. Visitors are hand-fed strawberries, one by one; they can water plants, or lie on a rug on a patch of grass while Howells curls up nearby.

But if being cuddled by a stranger might sound uncomfortable, imagine what it was like for Howells to feed and curl up around more than 80 visitors. "I had all sorts of participants," he says, "including some very straight men, a beautiful woman in her 80s who had had a stroke and was very 'game' about engaging with every aspect of the piece (including lying down on the rug with me!), a transgendered individual, and somebody with a severe walking disability," he recalls.

The personalized engagement with biblical scenes that Howells encourages in his work parallels his own deepening relationship with Israel.

"A lot of my previous understanding of Israel, I'm embarrassed to admit, was really governed by what I remember of biblical descriptions, of landscape, shepherds and sheep, and biblical garments," he says. "And the British media are saturated with Israeli and Palestinian representation, with almost exclusive images of it as a war zone. But the Israel I encountered, I loved - the bars in Tel Aviv, the beautiful beaches."

Howells also appears in a documentary called "Accidental Tourist," created by Shiri Kleinman and Timi Levi for Channel 8/Noga Communications. It aired on television last month, and was screened at the recent Jerusalem Film Festival. Howells is seen visiting an army checkpoint, and discussing homosexuality with Orthodox men and teenage boys after a synagogue service. In addition, there are other disconcerting scenes: "I dived under the water in the Dead Sea and my eyes burned, as no one had told me about the extremely dense salt content. I was a little bit like Frank Spencer [the character from a British sitcom] - you know, accident-prone, clueless and a naive, hapless tourist!" he says.

Says Kleinman, "The series tried to look at Israel through foreign eyes, and Adrian can be both very warm and friendly, but still maintain an outsider's perspective with a touch of cynicism. He gives Israelis a different view of our everyday behavior."

While the documentary was being made, Howells says he underwent a richer cultural experience than the average tourist has in Israel, and adds that he was struck by the warmth and generosity of the people he met. Indeed, the theme of generosity is at the heart of his work, he stresses. When he performed "Foot Washing for the Sole" locally, he requested that every participant become a performer by offering to wash another person's feet - thus "passing on" the act of generosity, as Jesus suggested to his 12 disciples. Similarly, upon leaving "The Garden of Adrian," audience members can take small seedlings to plant, thus assuming the responsibility of creating and cultivating their own garden.

Howells will be conducting a master class, organized by Stage Center Ramat Gan, in what is called "confessional performance," from August 16-21 at the Beit Tami cultural center in Tel Aviv. This is part of StagEuropa which is supported by the national lottery, the Foreign Ministry and the BIARTS program.

"The workshops deal with the meaning of confession and how a performer can communicate with the audience in the most frank, deep, sincere way, to expose their most intimate details," explains Shlomit Yossef, artistic coordinator of Stage Center.

At first glance Howells' performances might sound best suited to hard-line exhibitionists, or to just plain nosey people. Who knows? Maybe the themes embodied in his work would have struck a chord with "locals" from 2,000 years ago, like Jesus and his disciples.

Sarah Lightman is an artist and curator, and is working on a Ph.D. in autobiographical graphic novels at the University of Glasgow.