An Extra Ordinary Performance: the actions of Mark McGowan

My inbox pings to tell me a new press release has arrived. ‘ARTIST TO KICK CRACKHEAD DOWN ROAD’. Ping. ‘ARTISTS TO DROWN THREE KITTENS’. ping, ‘ARTIST TO PULL BUS WITH BIG TOE’. Ping. ‘ARTIST TO SCRATCH CARS WITH KEY’. Ping ‘ARTIST TO EAT FOX’. Ping. ‘ARTIST TO NAIL FOOT TO GALLERY WALL’. Ping. ‘ARTIST TO SEND PENSIONER INTO SPACE’…Amongst the dozens of seriously-written press mailings that come my way, these cranky, absurdist missives are the ones I look forward to most. Welcome to the world of Mark McGowan, the fool at the court of public art.

McGowan has been bothering the art world with his antics for four years now. Happily, he refuses to go away. In an art world culture obsessed with press and marketing, in which fighting for the oxygen of publicity has become a full-time job for galleries and museums, artists and their work become little more than a pretext in the battle for the attentions of an often bemused, sceptical, and downright uninterested audience. It’s not good enough nowadays to make art you believe in, and present it for the appreciation of those most interested in an artists work; the groups of dedicated friends, colleagues, collectors and other art fans that provide art with its most energetic audience. In the current culture, where accessibility, inclusion and outreach are the buzzwords of public policy, and where -as Oscar Wilde long ago pointed out -the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, the attraction of putting the visibility of art before the quality of the work itself is an ever-present temptation.

It’s a situation that is difficult for artists to ignore, or too avoid being passively resigned to, or to exploit cynically. McGowan’s work is notable in that it steeps itself in the vacuity of the public exposure of contemporary art whilst taking at face value the common notion that art can effectively communicate to a wider public. McGowan’s performances take the history of performance art and its ambiguous definition of public space, and hotwires it in to the circuits of the broadcast and print media, satellite news and the pages of the local press. In our more liberal era, artists are more often seen as benign curiosities, rather than snobs, cranks or subversives, and those artists who address themselves to the public in the form of public actions and artworks, now inevitably do so through, and for, the lens of the media. The ‘performance’ art-work, with its analogical proximity to other forms of public expression, such as busking or carnival, or demonstration and political protest, finds itself given new life as it enters the system of media-driven visibility.

McGowan understands this in works such as 2003’s Monkey Nut, which consisted of pushing a nut down the road, with his nose, from Goldsmiths College in South London all the way to Downing Street. Making the pages of The Sun newspaper, and the BBC evening news, McGowan’s explained the work to be a protest at having student debts of Ł15,000 and that, as Tony Blair accepted the nut as a gift, his nut as an artwork no doubt worth more that Ł15,000, McGowan considers his debts paid. Or there’s his Ocean Wave II of 2004, in which he attempted to ‘row’ himself Glasgow in a customised shopping trolley, with gifts given from Londoners to be presented ‘to the people of Scotland’, an apology on behalf of the English for the execution of the Scottish clan leader William Wallace in 1305. Or again there’s Sausage, Chips and Beans, in which McGowan sat in a bath of baked beans, sausages strapped to his head, chips stuffed up his nose: ‘I’m making a stand for the Great British Breakfast’ McGowan declared from the pages of The Mirror. ‘Working class people don’t want guacamole and taramasalata…they want chips, beans and sausage.’

Appearing wilfully dumb is part of McGowan’s far-from-stupid tactics. Speaking the language of the ordinary bloke, McGowan’s actions rework performance art’s traditional marginality into a mechanism by which the landscape of contemporary cultural anxiety, usually policed by the consensual and trivialising eye of media editors, can be hijacked and turned to celebratory and satirical uses.

For When McGowan’s actions take as their content issues that the mainstream media promote as part of the public consensus, the media suddenly become confused. Articulately inarticulate, McGowan disorients and undermines journalists’ patronising contempt for ordinary people; thinking to provide yet another daft human interest story for the last item, editors are faced with events that appropriate the issues of the day to give them shape in the embarrassing form of the ordinary person ‘trying to have his say’. That the media are attracted to McGowan’s activity also reflects its equally patronising enthusiasm for contemporary art. In the event, McGowan’s activity is a sophisticated ambush of the mass media’s true contempt for both art and public.

But McGowan is also something of a thorn in the side of the art world, upsetting the subtle etiquette of those who manage art’s presentation to the wider public. When it comes to getting support from public funding, McGowan declares that he has lost count of the rejections he has received from the Arts Council. According to what little rumour he can glean from behind the closed doors of the selection procedure, the general sentiment is that McGowan ‘cannot be serious’. Yet it is perhaps closer to the mark to argue that McGowan’s activity is too serious for some people’s liking, as it disrupts the finely balanced relations between those who control the circulation of art through its various institutional channels, mediating other interests and pressures as they go. It’s must be difficult to manage a responsible arts programme, and respond to government pressures for art to engage with the broader public, or promote agendas social inclusion or multiculturalism, when some buffoon addresses himself straight to the ordinary punter in a language we all understand, and quite often with ideas which are distinctly ‘off-message’. ‘ARTIST EATS FOX’ for example, was performed ‘in response to the recent debate on fox hunting and its legality’.

Similarly, McGowan’s apparent lack of seriousness deflates artists’ own sense of importance and significance of their activity. McGowan laughs at the recent debacle at Tate Britain during the Art and the 60s exhibition, in which a bag of rubbish that formed part of a work by artist Gustav Metzger was inadvertently thrown away by the cleaners. McGowan marvels at Metzger’s fussing over getting another bag of rubbish assembled (the artist considered the ‘original’ too badly damaged) observing how swiftly the story was spun to provide some much-needed press. Two can play that game, of course. One of McGowan’s more recent collaborations, ‘ARTISTS TO DROWN THREE KITTENS’ came about because the artists (McGowan and the group Foreign Investments) were ‘really angry about the current Joseph Bueys [sic] exhibition, where the Tate Gallery has decided to take upon itself to sell key fobs with little bits of felt inside, small blackboards with chalk, jigsaw puzzles and biscuit tins making a mockery of the artists work.’‘We feel really bad about the kittens,’ continues the press release, ‘but its the Tate Gallerys fault blame them.’

“Performance's only life is in the present,” wrote performance theorist Peggy Phelan a decade ago. “Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance” [1] McGowan is no fool to the critical implications of his work. Since Phelan tried to define the elusiveness of performance art, its radical invisibility, a number of artists have come to revise their terms of engagement, understanding the space of mediation - the ‘circulation of representations’ – as the primary site of activity, rather than a representation of an authentic act happening elsewhere. Artists such as the Italian Maurizio Cattelan or Frenchman Matthieu Laurette can be seen as continental counterparts to McGowan’s consciously critical approach to art’s public and media profile, demonstrating and unerring sophistication that supposedly media-friendly ‘young British artists’ can only dream of.

For all his lumpen appearance, the simpleton’s form of address, spelling mistakes and seemingly prosaic subject matter, McGowan is a far smarter operator than most artists of his generation. Increasingly, his actions have been testing the tolerance of distinctions between artistic license, social comment and the policing of public space: ‘ARTIST KEYS CARS’ in which McGowan allegedly vandalises parked cars, is billed as ‘a public event involving the local community in and around the Camberwell and Peckham area’ in which car-owners have not been ‘the victim of mindless indiscriminate vandalism but … have been involved in a performance project.’ For the next few days McGowan is busy with ‘ARTIST KICKS CRACKHEAD DOWN ROAD’ compelling an addict he has met to walk from Camberwell to London’s Maudsley Hospital, where McGowan has arranged for a doctor to offer his addict a consultation.

McGowan’s work takes the ghost of performance art and uses it to haunt the mass media, and the art world, with their own bad faith. Thumbing his nose at those artists who affect an interest in social issues, without stepping too far out of their comfortable enclave, McGowan intentionally grabs at whatever constitutes public discussion at any given time, forcing us to reconsider the hypocrisy and self-flattery that underpins contemporary art’s indulgence of both the media and the ordinary public. And at once, the media find themselves re-presenting the content of public debate that they surreptitiously manipulate, in the shape of a tale told by an idiot: A very Shakespearian fool for the 21st Century.

[1] Phelan, Peggy. 1993. "The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction" in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge: London and New York, p146


First published in Modern Painters, May 2005 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated