Wanted: any old irony

Adopt a prole and own your own living work of art. Peter Popham on what makes a masterpiece
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The Independent Online
Is this a work of art I see before me? I am standing at the top of the steps that lead up to the entrance of the Tate Gallery, and there beyond the gates is a short, bearded, middle-aged figure with a large tummy, wearing a white T-shirt inscribed Oxford University. Now he's inspecting the ice-cream van parked there. He goes to a nearby telephone box, then he's back in front of the gallery with a smouldering roll-up cupped in his right hand.

He looks slightly out of place here: a bit fatter, shorter and sadder than the normal run of Tate visitors, who err on the side of long, lean, young, elegant or, if none of the above, at least ostentatiously middle- class. Yet the man in the T-shirt belongs here as no one else does: he's the only human work of art in the place.

His name is Roger Powell, and one year ago he was exhibited at London's Saatchi Gallery as a living work of art, priced at pounds 1,000. Roger's apotheosis was swift: until that morning he had been sleeping rough in the Bull Ring, by Waterloo Bridge, begging for food and cigarettes. He had been approached by Tony Kaye, the TV commercials director, and asked if, for a fee, he would be prepared to be a living work of art. Roger couldn't think of a good reason to refuse.

That night at the Saatchi Gallery there were no buyers for Roger, but Kaye himself has become Roger's "owner", paying him pounds 60 weekly rent for a bedsit in Maida Vale plus pounds 75 expenses. In return, all Mr Powell has to do is be a work of art. Like non-human artworks, what this mostly involves is hanging around in galleries: the Tate is his most regular patch, but he can also be found at the British Museum and the National Gallery. The difference from the art on the walls is that, while people may occasionally cast sidelong glances at him, they do not as a rule stand very still, screw up their eyes and gaze at Roger. Students are not found cross-legged on the floor, sketching him; postcards of Roger are not available at the front desk, nor is he in any catalogue.

But this is gradually changing: like an unfashionable painting in a back gallery that slowly builds in fame and reputation until the curators are obliged to dust it down and hang it in pride of place, word of Roger is slowly spreading. Last week, staff at the National Gallery looked blank when I showed them Roger's picture. "I don't recall ever having seen him," said one. "If it was officially happening here we'd have been told about it." "We wouldn't entertain him here," said another, firmly. "He must be at the Tate." But after a rash of recent publicity, the number of those who see him for what he is - not a short, fat man with a heavy Old Holborn habit and a bad cough, but a work of art - is bound to increase. Soon spotting Roger will be as important an index of true discernment as having a new take on the Chapman brothers, or something interesting to say about Carl Andre's bricks.

Because Tony Kaye, who juxtaposed cat, mouse and dog in front of a cosy fire for the Solid Fuel Advisory Council, and orchestrated 2,000 babies for a Vauxhall Astra commercial, is not at the pinnacle of the advertising business by accident. He knows a trend when he sniffs one, and the genre to which Roger belongs - variously known as live art or body art - is one of the hottest trends around.

It was the Italian Futurists who in the early years of the century first urged painters to forsake their canvases and thrust themselves directly in the public's face. Since the emergence of people like Gilbert and George in the late 60s, "performance art" has edged closer and closer to the centre of critical attention. In the past few years it has become increasingly morbid and introspective. The Spanish artist Marcel.li [sic] Antunez Roca, his body strung with electrical wires, invites the audience to torture him by remote control. The Italian Franko appears "abject, naked, abused and covered with his own body fluids," as the ICA describes his show. The French artist Orlan's performances occur in operating theatres, and the operations slowly transform her appearance. Her next operation will endow her with an enormous new nose.

Compared to Titans such as these, Roger's "performance", which consists of hanging about outside the Tate Gallery, puffing on a roll-up, is modest. But unambitious as it appears, it is also possible to see it as a radical departure.

It is a key ironic idea in modern art: the very act of buying something and putting it in a gallery is enough to transform it into a work of art. Marcel Duchamp did it all those years ago with a pissoir, and a million people have done it since, with a million different mundane objects. The joke would appear to be running out of steam. Then along comes Tony Kaye and does it to a human being.

Like most things Kaye does - like the two naked Aids patients (both gleaming, to all appearances, with health and efficiency) currently on show at Jibby Beane's warehouse gallery in Clerkenwell, with signs saying "Please Touch Me" - the principal effect is shock. Kaye pays Roger's living expenses; that's philanthropy. But no, it's not: he claims to have bought him, and that sounds more like slavery. Furthermore, he's offered him for sale, at a price of pounds 850,000. And Roger, who is suitably grateful for the improvement in his lifestyle, and doesn't mind jetting about at short notice (already he's done the United States, soon he's off to Moscow and Israel), makes no demur.

Kaye's originality is not total. In the early 60s, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni signed and dated the naked bodies of people he called his "living sculptures", and gave them certificates declaring them to be authentic works of art. Last year, Mark Wallinger, short-listed for the Turner Prize, bought a racehorse and declared that to be a work of art. But to buy Roger, and have him hang about - that requires a different order of temerity. It may or may not be "art", but it homes in on the exposed nerve endings of a society which, with the evacuation of the mental hospitals and the creation of a huge new population of homeless people, is striving to blunt its sensibilities and tunnel its vision.

By making Roger a work of art, Kaye speaks to our fear that the rest of us, too, are at best merely commodities; and that at worst, like the people we see sprawled in doorways, our existence is self-evidently futile. So what is a human life worth? The old question gains a strange new resonance.