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Varieties of religious experience

Transcendence and manipulation: Matthew Stone and Theo Adams discuss their January issue shoot

Taken from the January issue of Dazed & Confused:

In our January issue shoot, ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’, performers – some of which are part of the Theo Adams Company – contort across the images, shot and subsequently collaged by photographer (and performance artist himself) Matthew Stone. Like peering through keyholes, we glimpse flesh and limbs, a circle of suited men in meditation, and expressions frozen in a moment of ecstasy. Adams’ and his performers come as their own characters, in the brutally honest and ultimately captivating style of performance his company has become known for. Stylist Katie Shillingford dresses these characters as if they had walked from their own stage wardrobes: like that of Andy, captured in a crucified stance, looking down upon those gathered below him in the futuristic cult leather of Alexander McQueen. United as a collective, the company pass through the varieties of transcendental experience – meditation, anguish and joy – a fluid performance paused for one, drawn-out second.

In the following conversation, long time collaborators Matthew Stone and Theo Adams discuss emotional manipulation, the power of a claustrophobic playlist, and Eurovision as the greatest work of art of the 20th century.

Matthew Stone: This shoot involved you as choreographer and 'Theo Adams Company' performers as some of the models, but it was obviously slightly different from what you normally do, in the sense that the final outcome was still imagery rather than a live performance. How do you connect to the idea of making imagery?

Theo Adams: Visually, I always think in moving image. I find it very difficult to see something motionless in my mind. The vast majority of my favourite still images are either film stills or images of something very live. That's why doing projects like this are exciting for me. It’s like taking a fully realised performance and taking it to its most extreme slow motion and finding that one split second moment that speaks most clearly, honestly and powerfully to the viewer.

Matthew Stone: I felt I wanted to capture actual performances rather than photograph people pretending to perform. Is there a difference?

Theo Adams: To me, there is a huge difference between attempting to represent ‘performing’ while posing for a camera, and a photographer capturing a real performance in time. Unless of course that performance was about posing in the first place, which is how the vast majority of fashion photography looks to me. But I'm interested in something more visceral, more electric and more human and that's why it's vital to me that we document people as they perform completely free without any kind of self-consciousness of how they may look. That's when people are at their most beautiful and you can create the most beautiful images, I think. My main direction to everyone on this shoot was ‘Don’t be afraid to be ugly, because Matthew will make you look beautiful regardless’, and you did!

"I read an interview with Beyoncé the other day where she said she “sees music”, and that's exactly what I do. For this shoot, I created multiple soundtracks beforehand. It was claustrophobic and relentlessly dramatic, tense, cathartic and loud." - Theo Adams

Matthew Stone: How important is gender to the statements you make with your work?

Theo Adams: When I'm making work I never really consider gender at all. My work isn’t about gender; it's about people being themselves. People bring gender up with me all the time, but I feel personally liberated of any kind of gender both in myself and my work, which I guess is quite a bold political statement, but it's just how I feel thankfully. I’m free to go beyond those constraints, which don't really exist in my mind anyway. I’m very aware they do from a sociological point of view, so from the outside it may seem like rebellion, but it's bigger than that; it's just being real and true to yourself. That's what I care about. I guess looking at my work from the outside, I'm drawn to people in my shows with some sort of strong feminine energy for whatever reason, but that’s a different thing to gender entirely. Some of those people may have been born biologically male or female, but their souls are what I'm interested in and souls go way beyond any kind of gender.

Matthew Stone: On the day of the shoot it was your playlists and musical choices that took the performances to a place of real power. I remember turning around while Maria was performing and seeing people sat on the edge of the stage crying. Can you speak about the power that music has for you and what you do? It seems so important.

Theo Adams: Music is the starting point to everything I do. I read an interview with Beyoncé the other day where she said she “sees music”, and that's exactly what I do. For this shoot, I created multiple soundtracks beforehand to create the right mood necessary for everyone involved - of course for the models, but also the creative team. It definitely wasn’t the usual background music you get on shoots. It was claustrophobic and relentlessly dramatic, tense, cathartic and loud. Creating the right environment is the most important part of what I do, and music is the most powerful tool for that. Get people to that right place and things just happen organically from there.

Matthew Stone: The title of the shoot was 'Varieties of Religious Experience', the word religion is maybe a bit confusing, and spirituality is too slippery a word also. I remember us discussing the idea of contrasting extreme states, which I think became apparent in the imagery. Do you see performance as something that allows the performer to connect to something beyond the everyday? Should the audience be open to being transformed?

Theo Adams: Absolutely. Art must be emotionally manipulative for both performer and audience to create magic. There seems to be the thought that ‘emotional manipulation’ of an audience is a negative process when it comes to art, that it somehow makes it less honest and true. But I believe the function of art whether it’s theatre, music, film, a painting or whatever else, is to act as a shortcut for people to experience these extreme emotions which are dulled in ‘everyday life’, and when you are taken to that place, that's the most real experience you can have. It's what makes you know you're alive. The artist's job is to communicate in the most powerful and impactful way. You must find ways of getting into the soul; that is what emotional manipulation is and that's the magic that makes art.

Matthew Stone: How do you direct people? What are you looking for? How much is you and how much is the performer?

Theo Adams: In my performances no one plays a character; they play elements of themselves. On stage it's all them. My job is to put them in my world and find elements of their being that make sense within it, and allow them to be at their most free while keeping everyone as a group. I believe at least 95% of directing is casting. Finding people you connect with that understand your vision is vital. I find people from everywhere. It's pretty instinctive, I can just tell if someone will work well with me or not. I'm interested in those people on stage that you can't take your eyes off. There's usually one in every show that just stands out. I like to bring those special beings and put them all on stage together!

"The one person that has got me really excited at the moment is Lillie McCloud from the latest season of X Factor USA. Watching her perform Cece Winans' “Alabaster Box” is a truly transcendental experience!" - Theo Adams

Matthew Stone: Who do you think is a under-rated performer currently?

Theo Adams: Oh there are so many people. I think every great performer is underrated! If I think someone is great, I can't give them enough praise, I get so excited when I see something great. Of course all the members of the Theo Adams Company are absolutely amazing in all their other projects and solo work too! My team aside, I guess the one person that has got me really excited at the moment is Lillie McCloud from the latest season of X Factor USA. Watching her perform Cece Winans' “Alabaster Box” is a truly transcendental experience!

Matthew Stone: You don’t seem to buy into the idea of high culture and low culture. Can you speak a little about that?

Theo Adams: I definitely don't buy into the whole high culture/low culture thing. People usually bring it up with me because I mix a lot of opera and classical music with contemporary pop and RnB, but that's just the music I like. It's ridiculous to put a hierarchy on art. You like what you like. Different people are drawn to different things for whatever reason. I'm so bored of all that now. I think in a lot of ways I’m a product of the internet age where you can go on YouTube and view a pasta advert staring Mina from the 1960s and then in one click watch the new Ciara video and finish with a clip from a new production of Salome or something. It’s all in the same place, shown in the same way. After all, Eurovision was the greatest work of art of the 20th century, and I say that with complete sincerity.

Photography and collage Matthew Stone
Styling Katie Shillingford
Choreography Theo Adams
Hair Roxane Attard
Make up Lauren Parsons at Premier Hair & Make-up
Models Isamaya Ffrench, Jordan Hunt, Masumi Saito, Mariya Mizuno, Nando Messias, Phoebe Collings-James and Sonoya Mizuno at Theo Adams Company, Arash Fatehi at Models 1, Andy Bradin, Angel Rose, Charlotte Carey at Union, Ebe Oke, Jonathon Luke Baker, Josh Quinton, Flash McLightning, Kheri at Oxygen, Laura O'Grady at Select, Lotta Hart, Olivier at Nevs, Rogelio Remirez, Theo De Gueltzl at Models 1, Tschan Andrews
Photographic assistants Rogelio Ramirez, Christina Photiou, Paola Vivas
Styling assistants Isabelle Sayer, Erin Lawrie
Hair assistants Natalie Shaaf, Polly Langh, Claire Higgs
Make-up assistants Cory De King, Gillian Campbell, Amy Atkins
Videographer Mr Wize
Post production The Forge
Casting Eddy Martin for File and Parade