Table Move 1
Table Move 2
In the Table Moves, the artist turned a specific arrangement of furniture through 90 degrees. At a certain point in the performance there was a shift in this action. In the brightly-lit Table Move 1, the furniture then had to be moved without the artist being seen, and in Table Move 2 (which was lit only by the gas-lamps which were part of the arrangement), after the shift in the action, the furniture had to be moved without the artist touching the ground.
Table Moves, Birmingham Art Gallery, 1985
Anthony Howell in Table Move 1, 1985. ‘I was 16,’ says Stewart Lee, ‘and susceptible.’ Photograph: Judith Ahern
It was my schoolfriend Simon Smith, perpetually ahead of the curve, who made me see the then-unknown REM catch fire at a small student gig in 1984. So when Simon suggested we see some "live art" by a man called Anthony Howell, I said I'd go. I was 16 and susceptible.
That night, we sat on plastic chairs in a semi-circle in the gallery cafe, around two suitcases, a small table and a wardrobe. A compact little man came out and moved the suitcases and the table around in inscrutable silence for 40 minutes. Then he climbed into the wardrobe and it fell over. I was in a hot flush of embarrassed hysteria throughout, terrified I would wet my pants and shriek with laughter, puncturing the mood for the two dozen spectators. So this was the pretentious shit those middle-classGuardian-reading wankers I learned about in my parents' Daily Mail were watching?
I composed myself for the second half. Howell came out again, with his smug and insolent face, now lit only by oil lamps, and clambered noiselessly about the same furniture holding two pails of water. Howell had his impenetrably important work to do. We had been invited to watch. And this time I was spellbound, amused, moved to tears even, and converted, though into what I didn't really know.
I never saw Anthony Howell perform again, but his passable poetry washes up in secondhand bookshops and he appears to have made a sideways move into tango. Simon Smith, meanwhile, went on to head eBay Australia. I remain eternally grateful to him for that night in Birmingham. There's no end of punters posting online their loathing of my work, especially when they feel out of step with the crowd. "Everyone around me was loving it," wrote one this summer, "and I hated his guts."
I know how they feel. I suspect that if I had seen my current act as a younger man, its passive-aggressive monotony and veiled performance art strategies might have left me equally irritated. But I take some comfort in the fact that Table Moves, which I remember with great fondness, also appeared to me, at first, to be intolerable.
Stewart Lee's Vegetable Stew is now touring the UK, and runs at the Leicester Square theatre, London from 26 Oct to 18 Dec; stewartlee.co.uk
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