Jade Goody's death inspires controversial new work by Britain's most notorious performance artist

Mark McGowan's first professional show saw him pushing a peanut for seven miles across the streets of London, using only his nose. This was 2003, and McGowan started out from Goldsmiths College, ending up at Downing Street, where he presented his well-travelled nut to a government representative. This was, he says, "a protest against student fees".

Not long after his debut act, the 37- year-old performance artist claimed to have spent two weeks lying in a bath of baked beans, with a chip stuck up each nose, and 48 sausages strapped to his head. In case you were wondering, he did so in order to promote an important message: "I was advocating the consumption of the much-maligned breakfast," he says.

In his own words, McGowan's work is driven by a deep social and political agenda, and the focus of his work varies, from to environmental issues to police accountability. In 2005, McGowan reconstructed the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station and in the same year he planned to leave a tap running for 12 months, in a bid to highlight the environmental problem of water wastage.

Before that, there was the epic Trolley Voyage of 2003. By way of "reconciliation for the William Wallace thing", Mark McGowan set out from his home in Peckham, south London, attempting to "sail" 400 miles to Glasgow, in a shopping trolley. Along the way, he would collect gifts from those he met, to present to the people of Scotland upon his arrival.

Unfortunately, after 17 days and 65 miles, McGowan was forced to abandon his mission "due to bad weather and poor equipment". In response to this particular stunt, McGowan was branded "pointless" by one media pundit. Others have been more scathing.

Following a series of recent public re-enactments, McGowan, who has a seven year-old son, has been described as "heartless, cruel" and "beyond imagination". One such project was the reconstruction of the 7/7 bombings, in which 52 people died. For this, McGowan filled a small room with smoke, inviting his audience to step inside to experience what those involved in the explosion might have felt at the time.

McGowan feels that as an artist, cynicism is something he has to accept. "My performance is often a work of protest or bound with controversial social issues," he says. "The popular media is very sceptical when it comes to the art world and its motives, so it is natural that they should call into question the validity of what I'm doing."

On several occasions, McGowan has been accused of using tragic events to his advantage, but he says it is his job to engage in public debate: "My work is a form of historical archive," he says. "I want people to look back at what I've done and to say: 'that is the period in which he lived.'" That people get upset is just part of the process: "It's important to provoke, isn't it?" he asks.

His latest piece, The Re-enactment of the Death of Jade Goody, is a suitably controversial subject matter. The performance takes place in an unconventional exhibition space in east London, on a sunny bank-holiday weekend. Mark McGowan is not actually a direct participant in the reconstruction. Instead, he greets his crowd at the doorway of the gallery, escorting them inside the building in pairs or threes to see the show. "It will be a more intimate experience this way," he explains.

The piece lasts for two hours, and during this time, 200 visitors pass through the doors. The performance takes place in the dank basement of a ramshackle brick terrace, filled with household rubbish and empty plastic bags. There are dirty dressing gowns taped to the walls, and a broken wooden aeroplane hangs from the ceiling. Tucked under a thin sheet on a small bed in the centre of the room, lays a slight figure with a cardboard box on her head; attached to it is a headshot of Goody, bald headed, in the final stages of the losing battle with cervical cancer.

On one either side of her, her mother, Jackie, and husband, Jack, hold vigil. Both sit motionless, holding a hand each; cardboard boxes worn on their heads, with photographs stuck to them, to indicate who they are: Jackie's image is taken from Jade's funeral, her tear-stained face is contorted with grief, she looks utterly helpless. Jack, by comparison, looks decidedly smug.

One of the first couples to go downstairs is a pair of Japanese tourists, who appear to have stumbled upon the event quite by accident. They exchange baffled glances as they try to work out where to stand, who to watch, and how long to stay there. For as long as they do – five minutes almost – the trio sits in silence, totally still, but for the occasional stir of Jade's leg or the flex of her fingers against her mother's palm.

Ridiculous as the scene clearly is in one respect, it is actually rather powerful. There is a sense of discomfort, if not actual sadness. "Using cardboard boxes for heads rather than actual faces," McGowan explains, "suspends belief. It objectifies the subjects in a way that isn't otherwise possible".

He compares the process to that of puppetry: "Marionettes always show you the strings, but you never take your eyes off the puppet," he says. "This makes for a very potent, almost spiritual atmosphere." It is difficult somehow to reconcile these words with the image of him descending into a freestanding bath filled with baked beans.

So, is McGowan a misunderstood genius? He is certainly not an idiot. "My work can appear shallow, of course, ridiculous, even, but somehow that's where it gets its power," he says, letting it all out now. "I decided to take part in the spectacle, and entered it at the shallow end."

Okay, so he can be deep, too. But aside from the bean baths and trolley ventures, there are other questions. It emerges that – unsurprisingly in some cases – sometimes when McGowan claims to do something, he simply does not bother. After an hour in the bath of baked beans, he left a mannequin in his place for the remaining fortnight, for example. So, what exactly then, are we supposed to think?

Apparently, whether or not he actually does a piece of work when he says he does is neither here nor there: "My work is about being an artist and carrying a message," he says. "Peggy Phelan once said,'The power of a performance lies in it not really being there.' It is the narrative that is significant. Maybe I didn't do actually it, but I could have done, and that's the point."

Even when I do actually give a performance," he concludes, "the next day, in the physical sense, it has gone. It is the memory that someone is left with that counts. My work will only exist in as much as one person chooses to describe it to the next." Well, there's a challenge.

Stunt man Mark McGowan's strangest moments

Kick George Bush's Ass

In 2007, McGowan put on a George Bush mask and crawled around the streets of New York inviting passers by to "kick his butt". He described this as an act of "public service". In one live television interview, several members of the audience spoke of the "cathartic" nature of the experience they had given him.



Artist Keys Car

In 2005, Mark McGowan claimed to have scratched 47 random cars in the south London area, using a key. There was public outrage at his performance, which he described as an attempt to highlight the "pandemic of car-keying in the area". Despite publicly accepting responsibility for the acts, he had in fact merely photographed cars that he had found already vandalised.



Christmas is coming

In a campaign to create awareness about the "obesity pandemic" in Britain, at Christmas time in 2003, McGowan wore a 27lb turkey on his head and walked backwards for 11 miles, shouting at overweight passers-by through a homemade loudspeaker.



Water works

Part of a series of environmental protests, McGowan planned to leave a tap running in House Gallery in south London for one year. In order to highlight the issue of water wastage, he attempted to, er, waste 15 million litres of water – but was forced to turn it off by Thames Water.



Foxy supper

For this piece, McGowan's message was simple: "millions of people have marched for fox hunting, and millions have marched against. But who is going to march for the crackheads?" This was in 2004, and by way of illustrating his point, he put on a dinner suit, drew up a chair at a small table in the middle of the street, and ate a fox.

The Guy Hilton Gallery presents Mark McGowan's 'The Reenactment of the Manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson' on 25 May at 2pm, at the Royal Exchange, London EC3; McGowan also curates Police and Violence at the Sassoon Gallery, London, SE15 on 6 June (thesassoongallery. co.uk) Watch videos of the artist's performances at www.independent.co. uk/art

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