Mark McGowan: Is this man off his trolley?

Mark McGowan plans to sail to Scotland in a shopping cart. Last year, he pushed a peanut from Peckham to Downing Street with his nose. So what, exactly, is he trying to prove? Clare Dwyer Hogg went to find out
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A splash of yellow is moving down the Peckham road in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. From a distance, the splash seems to be suspended in mid-air, occasionally spinning, sometimes changing speed, but always moving. Closer, it becomes apparent that this splash is, in fact, a man. A man wearing a yellow waterproof suit. He's sitting in a supermarket trolley, propelling it along with the aid of a sail (a sail, in all its literal glory, attached to the trolley by means of a stick and some gaffer tape), a brush (which acts as an oar) and his feet (an alternative to a rudder).

The man in yellow is Mark McGowan, a 37-year-old artist about to embark on a journey which will see him, and his trolley, travel all the way from London to Glasgow. He estimates that his expedition will take at least seven months. It's probably the most exciting trip a Safeway trolley has ever been on. Beats the shop to car route, at any rate.

His movement along the pavement is punctuated by people asking him just exactly what he's doing. He going to Scotland, he replies. He's doing it for the Scottish people, to apologise on behalf of the English people for William Wallace. Hung, drawn and quartered by the English in the 14th century, Wallace is a Scottish hero. McGowan thinks someone needs to do something to stem the angst between the two nations, and that person is him. "A Scottish MP heard about what I'm doing," he says, "and said to tell me not to bother if I didn't turn up with a letter of apology from the Queen and the English government." He laughs. He's doing it regardless, to aid the reconciliation, and he's collecting gifts on the way. "So far I've got a Russian calendar from some Russian people, a hairclip from a Portuguese lady, a bottle of whisky from an Irish bloke, and slippers and chocolates from English people," he says. And by the time McGowan brushes his way into Glasgow he hopes he'll have a trolley full of presents from English people to give to the Scottish people he meets.

On the streets of Peckham in south east London, most people he encounters want to know what he's doing and whether he's doing it for charity. "Yes", he replies, even though that's not true (in a financial sense, anyway). The journey may be "art", but McGowan says he hates the pretentious baggage that the word "art" carries with it. So he's decided to carry his own baggage instead, in an iron shopping cart on wheels.

"Like the education system, art is full of middle-class people," he says. "I wouldn't say it's racist or anything like that, but it has got problems. They do their shows in little white galleries, and invite all their friends. They're not for the people. These artists come here to do art classes, getting £20,000 to teach. But kids around here don't give a fuck about art - they want to know about football and DJs." He raises his eyebrows. "There's no-one with a string vest in the National Gallery. Not welcome. I'm taking art out of the gallery and putting it on the street. I'm not very pretentious about my things - I'm stupid, I'm ridiculous, but you see all the people I connect with? They wouldn't go to an art gallery."

Certainly, McGowan's theory does seem to be borne out on the streets of Peckham. On our short journey, from outside Southwark Town Hall to the greasy spoon café, where it is quieter to chat, at least eight people stop to speak to him. A traffic warden approaches him first (her parting words are that "the conversation's getting cosmic"); next it's a little boy on a bike who screeches to a stop alongside him to ask what he's doing. "Going to Glasgow, in Scotland. You should ask for a trolley instead of a bike. Much better. This is a specially adapted one - look at those wheels." And quicker than a trolley rolls down a hill, McGowan has Russell, 12 years old, completely engrossed. So quickly do they strike up a friendship, in fact, that Russell kindly offers to personalise his Safeway trolley sign, and whips out some markers he happens to have in his pocket to do the deed (though we aren't allowed to tell his mum that). McGowan says he'd prefer him to tag his yellow mac instead, which Russell duly does. That's art on the street. Or moving graffiti. Or something without an exact name - McGowanism? Maybe.

Newly tagged, McGowan sets off down the road again, moving towards three boys who are not much taller than the top of the trolley coming in the opposite direction. They can't take their eyes off it. "Hello," he says. "Yeah man," the smallest one replies - his expression belying his seeming nonchalance. They pass by, and his friend turns back to yell. "Hey! Good luck with your journey!" "Thanks," McGowan shouts, and turns back to face the road. "Remember Damilola Taylor?" he continues quietly. "They're at his school. It's only just around the corner."

McGowan was born and bred in south London, and he knows its geography better than most. And this isn't the first time he's had a gaggle of interested people asking him questions. In September he pushed a peanut with his nose from Peckham to Downing Street (seven miles) to protest against the expense of going to university. In November he sat for two weeks in the window of the House Gallery, a local art space, in a bath full of beans with 46 sausages strapped to his head and a chip up each nostril. That was to remind people to eat British produce. And if you'd been anywhere between Elephant and Castle and Bethnal Green in London in December, 2002, you might have seen him rolling (downhill style, sideways). That was his Rollover, to remind people to be nice to their cleaners. It was particularly personal: he'd been a night cleaner for two years to fund his painting. "There were two little black books in the building: one upstairs, and one downstairs. They were called 'notes to the cleaner' and everyone wrote 'you haven't done this, you haven't done that' - nothing kind. This particular Christmas someone wrote 'are all them little bits of paper going to stay under my desk until the New Year?' Not a Happy Christmas to be seen. And it was the day before Christmas Eve!"

The other happenings aren't as directly linked to McGowan, but spring from his sense of injustice, which seems to run deep. The peanut push was inspired by his anger at how unfairly the poor are treated by the education system. "My whole point was that when you're little you say you want to be an explorer or a doctor or whatever. But round here those kids won't become whatever they want, because they can't get into university. When they get to 16 or 17 they have to work." McGowan went to university a few years ago as a mature student. "All I wanted to say was 'give grants, not loans'. To give grants to people who need them, support them in what they want to do. If they want to become a doctor and they're from Peckham - no chance. Who's going to pay? I'm not just talking about fees, but about where they'll live when they get there." He pauses. "University is still so middle class. But I'm not sure whether it'll change anything." He drifts off. "They just don't care, really." These words could seem a long rant, but McGowan speaks too quietly to qualify as a ranter. They're more of an acknowledgement that some things are wrong: the way he chooses to express that is, he freely admits, ridiculous, but more effective than anything else he can think of.

So now he's off to apologise to the Scottish people for something that happened centuries ago. Without back-up or a plan B. "I did a piece once when I crawled from Peckham to Camberwell with cotton wool in my ears and a stereo on my back playing 'I did it my way'," he says. "It was called Doing Things The Hard Way." And with that, he gets into his trolley, checks his compass (set east), and rolls off towards Glasgow.

IT'S ART... HONESTLY

* Harpreet Devi, an Indian taxi driver from Bhatinda, plans to drive his car in reverse across the India-Pakistan border to convey a message of peace. Devi and his wife are known as the "reverse couple" because they have driven everywhere in reverse since the gear-stick jammed two years ago.

* An artist from Argentina is stripping off in front of every temple, mosque and church in his country to make a point about tolerance. Luizo Vega, 24, thinks his stunt will reveal exactly how forbearing the different religious institutions really are. His stunt is called The Faith Project.

* Thirteen art students from Leeds University caused controversy when they used the £1,600 of sponsorship money given to them to put on an art exhibition for a trip to the Costa del Sol called it Going Places. Despite later being revealed as a hoax, they said it was engineered to make people discuss what art was.

* Pioneered on the streets of New York and subsequently copied all over the world, "flash-mobbing" is a seemingly random convergence of strangers who form a mob and quickly disperse again. Flash-mobbers communicate by text, and have been characterised by such props as a copy of the Financial Times or a carnation. Last December, flash-mobbers congregated in Providence, sang three carols, and then quickly disappeared.

Comments