Tell me that I’m crazy

Liam O’Brien interviews controversial performance artist Theo Adams, whose performances are cacophonous, impactful and provocative statements that operate in a constant fluctuation between emotional extremities

Theo Adams’ performances are cacophonous, impactful and provocative statements that operate in a constant fluctuation between emotional extremities. Photographs of his artistic endeavours – dripping with paint, glitter and blood, face obscured – are frightening. The idea that this image is somehow artificial or unreal is shattered by the images of his everyday life – teeth braced, lips curled, dressed sparsely in chaotic charity shop finds from North London. A darling of Youth culture rags at just nineteen years of age, his performances evidence a complex psychology that he talks about with blunt honesty.

His early years appear unbound by any socially imposed gender restriction: a look at Theo’s Myspace profile reveals a pre-adolescent Theo comfortable in female ensembles. “I never really believed it to be experimentation when I was very young. I don’t really think I was aware that I was a bit weird. I thought everyone wore ball gowns and performed to show tunes.” This innocence evaporated, however, upon enrolling in secondary school, where Theo “only lasted 2 years, and barley attended. It was just not really the right environment for me to be in as you can imagine. I have always been stubborn. I didn’t like it and although my parents wanted me to go there they had no real choice but to let me leave.” After plentiful ‘social conflict’, Theo left the formal education system in Year 10, at which point he began performing.

Despite this, his performances and experiments with sound are littered with myriad references to both pop culture and academia. “I don’t believe high and low culture exist. It’s just culture in my mind,” he maintains. Celine Dion merges with a Judith Butler monologue questioning the ostensible norms of masculinity. “I guess the label I would attach myself to would be ‘queer’. I read quite a lot on queer theory. I truly believe gender is fluid. I am of the male sex but my gender is completely fluid. I don’t see myself as masculine or feminine and I don’t see those things as important. If I want to wear a pair of heels it’s because I like the way they look, not because I want to look like a ‘woman’. It’s hard for a lot of people to understand but I have always felt like this and I guess it gives me a lot of freedom to do things.”

Theo’s message to the audience is conveyed via brutal bodily interpretations of pure joy and pure anxiety, the nature of which has alarmed some onlookers: “My performances are about celebration of the body and soul. I think what I do is hugely optimistic, and cathartic to both the audience and myself. My aesthetic can be quite dark but out of dark comes light and hopefully that is what I bring. I think I may have scared people, but hopefully have I’ve expanded their comfort zone and mind.” This is an optimism dressed in sudden, violent movements and crazed howling: “When I perform I usually wear as little as possible to highlight the movement aspect. I will just wear a pair of flesh tone tights. The movement, sound and atmosphere are the important things. I think all performance is provocative, and I want people to be affected by what I do. The performances take lots of planning, especially now that I have live musicians and dancers. However, the movement and actual ‘performance’ is almost entirely improvised. I think that, for me, full rehearsal would be almost pointless. I barley remember what I do on stage, I am in another zone and it keeps things fresh for me. I am, however, interested in choreography and am exploring it more and more.”

The addition of other performers and photographers to his acts is a by-product of a continuing rise in popularity in both London and international scenes, yet one wonders whether a cast of other people distracts from deeply personal performances so reliant on one central vision.

Having performed ensemble at the Tate Britain, Theo used a cast for the second time in Make it Happen, in which he was thrust into a dress, covered in red glitter and sang Lena Zavaroni’s Going Nowhere, all in an abandoned Peckham car park.

His experience of sharing his ideas with others has been resoundingly positive: “I have been lucky enough to find people that are incredibly open minded and understand where I am coming from. What I do is deeply personal but there is no reason why others can’t enter my world. I’m very privileged to have found some of those people.” In terms of his own development and career trajectory, Make it Happen was a particularly significant and transformative occasion. “Every performance has been important on some level. However, Make it Happen expanded what I did hugely. I had to organise everything from the sound to the sweeping of the floors. It was the first time I was really given the chance to do anything; I didn’t feel there were any restrictions whatsoever. I guess it may be because it was so recent, but it does feel like a new chapter in what I do. I always think big.”

Head half-shaved, lips chapped and blistered, body often collapsed on the floor – it is clear that the physicality of the work takes its toll. In Roisin Murphy’s Movie Star video, Theo’s face begins covered in a textured red makeup in a striking look reminiscent of Marc Quinn’s Self sculpture. This makeup is then ripped and dragged off by hand in lunatic style. Theo is sure, however, that he doesn’t “really see tearing the make-up as self destructive. I put my body through a lot, but I like the idea of the facade and it being ripped away”.

Through these performances, he has garnered an impressive list of famous admirers, even doing an advertising campaign for Alexander McQueen. “It involved doing a photo shoot with my Sister’s Boyfriend about an hour before it was supposed to be given to the McQueen people and me completely staining the clothes with greasepaint. Little did I know that it would be used on billboards around the world. I was 20ft tall in times Square apparently. All rather odd. Not really that important to me though.”

Theo completely denies that his work was constructed for or is a viable outlet for commercial endeavours. “I did that for the experience and a bit of fun. I have no desire to sell clothes to people though. It’s definitely not what I’m interested in. I don’t see that as part of my work. I don’t have much to offer people that want to make money. Performance art is definitely not where the big bucks are. I do what I do for love and to express myself. I don’t do it for any other reason.

Though Theo is associated with the London nightlife circle that found its spiritual home in Boombox and was promoted aggressively in the capital’s press outlets, he is quick to dispel any notion of the pretension often attached to this apparent clique by media portrayals. He praises Scottee, fellow performance artist, as his ‘other mother’, and claims that his alter ego ‘The-O’, was “a complete joke, it came from someone reading my name wrong.”

Reflecting on his young but eventful career, Theo recognises the capital as a source of constant inspiration: “London is my home. It’s my friends’ home. It is the greatest city in the world. I may walk down the street and get threatened with a knife. But I also can walk down the street and find people dancing. Living in London is truly living. I don’t want an easy life! I want to be inspired by people. And there are a hell of a lot of freaks in this town!” Theo’s brazen success typifies the London trend of an increasingly young artistic community gaining press attention through a strange, hyper-real urbanism.

2 comments

  1. Liam, this article is disturbing. Not only do you demonstrate that you have no artistic credentials to judge the thing whatsoever, you also prove yourself to be a moron. Please stop. This is the worst kind of drivel. The guardian won’t love the self-aware indifference forever, eventually even they will crave for something higher, something more elevated, something more substantial. So just stop. Because this is awful You are awful. Awful awful awful. COMMA COMMA COMMA. you are the intellectual equivalent of a very thick piece of banana that looks at pigs and wants to make movies about the way a pig moves and likes pigs. You are vile and so is you whole operation. Have a good day.

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  2. 17 Dec ’08 at 7:10 pm

    Vile operator

    Timothy dahling,

    I take all comments very seriously, and sincerely apologise that you were so deeply moved as to complain about the content of this article.

    Ta-ra.

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