I'm interested in all aspects of Mark McGowan's art, from Sausage, Chips and Beans (2003) his two-week residency in a bathtub full of baked beans with 48 sausages tied to his head and a chip inserted in either nostril, to Artist Eats Fox (2004), in which he ate a fox as a protest against the disproportionate political attention paid to the canid. But the McGowan works that intrigue me canid most are those that subvert our notions of urbanity, place and the very significance of travel.
Take, for example, You Turkey (2003), in which McGowan walked backwards through London for 11 miles with a 27lb turkey strapped to his head, shouting at fat people; or Monkey Nut which saw him rolling said nut from Denmark Hill in south London to Number 10 Downing Street with his nose. There have also been more adventurous forays. Ocean Wave II had him attempting to sail from Peckham to Glasgow in a shopping trolley, while Earless (2004) took McGowan to Italy, where he pulled a television attached to his ear the six miles from Milan's Central Station to the opulent home of premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Most of McGowan's journeys have an agitprop angle. You Turkey aimed to highlight the obesity pandemic, while Monkey Nut inveighed against the student loans system. Earless was an extempore act, provoked by McGowan's apprehension of the near-totalitarian media control exercised by the Italian leader. But some of his journeys have more the air of subversive pilgrimages than solo marches or rallies. Ocean Wave II aimed at reconciling the Scots and the English, and in order to effect this McGowan picked up a number of gifts from people around London (Henry Kelly, the broadcaster, donated a mug), before heading north.
Or take McGowan's most recent action On the Road to a Miracle (2005), when he attempted to kick a crackhead from Peckham to Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill, where he'd arranged for a consultation with a psychiatrist. Influenced by Frazer's The Golden Bough, McGowan was intent on emphasising the role of the addict as scapegoat, and to that end the crackhead was required to assume a foetal position on the pavement while McGowan laid into him. "Unfortunately my crackhead said he was dizzy after about 10 feet," the artist vouchsafed to me when we last spoke, "and the guy I had in reserve was too sick for me to kick, so we ended up going to Camberwell Green where I got them to clip 4,500 clothes pegs on to me." (Pegged Out ).
McGowan has a matter-of-fact way of talking about what he does; freed from cant or theorising and also refreshingly alive to its absurdity. When he was embarking on his Scottish journey: "I couldn't get out of Peckham Square for hours. Loads of people had turned up including a French TV crew and a photographer from The Times, but I couldn't get going because I hadn't worked out how to steer the trolley."
Irony also abounds. The Italian secret servicemen who approached him during Earless were entirely mollified by a clipping from L'Espresso about McGowan; then when he reached Berlusconi's house he was invited in: "It was a lovely gaff, and they let me clean myself up in a bathroom and gave me a cup of coffee." Later that evening he appeared on the Italian version of Question Time, broadcast, naturally, on one of Berlusconi's own stations.
It will undoubtedly reassure many people to learn that despite having made various applications McGowan hasn't received any funding from the Arts Council or any other public body. However this doesn't embitter him. He's a local boy from Peckham who got to Camberwell Art College and then on to Goldsmiths, where he wrote a master's thesis entitled Is the Village Idiot Stupid?.
I find McGowan's work sad, funny and destabilising all at once. He told me that "Before I became an artist I was always sitting around saying 'Oh, I'll do this or that' but I never got it together." Now McGowan is well and truly at it I think his art demonstrates the inversion of this aimlessness and procrastination: enormous willpower is brought to bear on absurdist missions with impossible objectives. He understands only too well that by launching himself into the urban context in such an extraordinarily vulnerable fashion, he's baring the shame that many people feel and yet hide.
We're right to fear it - and the sight of a grown man rolling down the street singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Rollover 2002) is bound to awaken our slumbering suspicion that 99 per cent of the journeys we undertake in life are wholly without merit or purpose.
By Will Self
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