EXHIBITIONS / A healing process: Try this one for size - shoes reveal the physical and psychological identity of the wearer. Siobhan Dolan reports

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The Independent Culture
Been meaning to get rid of that pile of old shoes festering in the bottom of the wardrobe? Don't: it may hold the key to your personality. As Peter Hatton of Those Environmental Artists says, 'People don't just buy a pair of shoes, they buy a view of themselves. The shoe acts as a witness because it spends a lot of time with you and becomes moulded to your person. It's both an interesting physical and psychological object.'

With this in mind, Those Environmental Artists collaborated with Impossible Theatre to produce 'Other People's Shoes', a celebration of the shoe. A year- long series of events followed, culminating in an exhibition that combines installation and performance, currently at the City Gallery, Leicester.

At the entrance to the gallery sits a 4 ft pile of second-hand shoes. Visitors are invited to either donate their own cast-offs, or select one from the mountain and write about it on a label. Farther along, beyond a curtain, hang hundreds of shoes suspended in see-through plastic bags. Each footstep resonates on the steel floor, while surrounding mirrors enhance the feeling of quiet contemplation. On certain days Impossible Theatre offers its interpretation of the display.

Peter Hatton is clear as to why the two groups were inspired by such an unlikely object. 'The idea was to take an everyday object and scrutinise it from different perspectives,' he says. 'We chose the shoe because it's a very functional object but also represents a display of personality.'

Chris Squire of Impossible Theatre agrees. 'Shoes are the most individual item of clothing,' he says. 'When you buy them they don't fit anybody, but when you've worn them for a couple of months you mould them into your shape. From an actor's point of view, you can work from the shoes upwards to get into the character.'

'Other People's Shoes' was researched at Clarks Shoes in Street, Somerset. 'We spent time in factories as well as visiting museums and shoe collections,' Hatton says. 'As a result we became interested in the industrial perspective and set up a framework which shadowed the manufacturing process.'

Consequently TEA and Impossible Theatre conducted consumer research events to spread 'shoe awareness' and asked people to fill in a questionnaire on a shoe box to find their ideal shoes. These ranged from 'comfy' loafers to an elaborate Boot Diplomatique, 'all feathers and cotton wool to allow you to tiptoe into difficult situations'. About 300 of the ideal shoes were then manufactured and displayed, with their boxes, in a Dewsbury shopping unit.

According to Hatton, what lends cohesion to the exhibition is the fact that each stage of the project had its own rationale. 'The consumer research period was about gathering information; the retail aspect focused on consumerism and the museum piece here is about curation, collection and personal history.'

'We performers act as museum curators and are working to animate the space,' Squire says. 'We use the shoes as a source for movement and try to invest new life into them. We work with both the shoe and the information supplied on the label. For example, there's a pair of brown boots with steel caps on the heels. Someone has attached a label explaining that it reminded them of the sound of their father's boots clicking on the concrete floor, and that set something off in my head.'

Some have questioned whether the exhibition is art, but others have left saying that they will never think of shoes in the same way again. 'What's nice about it is that it's been a mix of art and social research and has crossed into a lot of different areas,' Hatton says. 'The subject matter makes it immediately accessible to everyone.'

Other People's Shoes, City Gallery, 90 Granby St, Leicester LE1 (0533 540593) to 5 Mar, live performances 1-5pm 1-4 Mar

(Photograph omitted)

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