A clever twenty-first century fool

Mark McGowan's 'running tap' artwork touched the raw nerve of environmental correctness.

JJ Charlesworth

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My inbox pings to tell me a new press release has arrived. ‘ARTIST TO KICK CRACKHEAD DOWN ROAD.’ Ping. ‘ARTIST TO PULL BUS WITH BIG TOE.’ Ping. ‘ARTIST TO SCRATCH CARS WITH KEY.’ Ping. ‘ARTIST TO EAT FOX’.… Among the dozens of seriously written press mailings that come my way, these 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.

Others don’t get the joke. ‘ARTIST TO WASTE 15 MILLION LITRES OF WATER’, an artwork leaving the cold water tap running for one year in a south London gallery, was followed up yesterday with ‘THAMES WATER ISSUE NOTICE TO STOP ART WORK’. When the water company threatened to cut off the gallery’s water supply, McGowan conceded defeat.

McGowan has been bothering the art world with his antics for four years now. In an art world 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 have become little more than a pretext in the battle for attention. 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 visibility of art is often put before the quality of the work.

Today 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 media. The ‘performance’ artwork, with its analogical proximity to other forms of public expression, such as busking or carnival, is given new life.

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 to Downing Street. In the pages of the Sun and on the BBC evening news, McGowan explained that the work was a protest at having student debts of £15,000; since Tony Blair accepted the nut as a gift, the artwork was no doubt worth more that £15,000, McGowan considers his debts paid. Or there is his Ocean Wave II of 2004, in which he attempted to ‘row’ himself to Glasgow in a customised shopping trolley, with gifts 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 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’, he declared in 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. When his actions hijack issues that the mainstream media promote as a public consensus, the media become confused. Articulately inarticulate, McGowan disorients and undermines journalists’ contempt for ordinary people. Looking for another daft human interest story for the last item, editors are faced with the issues of the day given 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 their equally patronising enthusiasm for contemporary art. McGowan’s activity is a sophisticated ambush of the mass media’s 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 public. When it comes to getting support from public funding, McGowan declares that he has lost count of the rejections he has received from Arts Council England. According to the rumours from behind the closed doors of the selection procedure, the view 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. It must be difficult to manage a responsible arts programme, and respond to government pressures for accessible art, when some buffoon addresses himself straight to the ordinary punter in a language we all understand, and quite often with ideas that 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. 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).

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 to walk from Camberwell to London’s Maudsley Hospital, where McGowan has booked a consultation.

With ‘ARTIST TO WASTE 15 MILLION LITRES OF WATER’, McGowan has gone too far for some. Touching on the raw nerve of environmental correctness, McGowan has exposed how everyone from London mayor Ken Livingstone to the average gallery goer has bought into the idea that water is a scarce resource that needs to be ‘conserved’, rather than the plentiful and abundant product of an advanced and prosperous society. In his original press statement, McGowan declared that ‘Basically its [sic] an art piece for people to come and look at and enjoy aesthically [sic], it is also a comment on a social and environment issue’. What his stance on the ‘environment issue’ might be is left in up the air. But to enjoy a running tap ‘aesthetically’ is to be able to see it as a good thing, not as something that must be reprimanded. Unfortunately, both the water company and the mayor of London would rather lecture us about our personal responsibility to conserve water, than do anything about a leaky, ageing infrastructure.

McGowan’s work is political art in its rawest form. Not a tepid reiteration of political truisms about how the world is a terrible place, but rather a probing of the significant ideas that underpin everyday life. McGowan thumbs his nose at those artists who affect an interest in social issues without stepping out of their comfortable enclave; at politicians and bureaucrats who he incites to punish him; and at the media, who find themselves re-presenting the issues of the day in the shape of a tale told by an idiot: a very Shakespearian fool for the twenty-first century.

JJ Charlesworth is an art critic and lecturer, and editor of the The Future art magazine.

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