It was probably 'The Running Tap' that finally saw Mark McGowan topple Tracey Emin as the artist most likely to be viciously spat into debates about Modern Art, and what a ludicrous, offensive waste of time it really is. After all, at least Emin can embroider. What can Mark McGowan do? It doesn't take a degree in Fine Art Painting to turn on a tap. Although, perhaps annoyingly, McGowan does have such a degree. At TFT we've been amongst McGowan's most consistent detractors, and although it's been fun, it was beginning to wear a little thin. So we thought it was time we had it out once and for all, face to face.
We met McGowan at the South London Gallery on Peckham Road, beneath the unseeing gaze of a giant cockroach-infested mole. From there we repaired to a couple of comfy chairs and got down to it.
'People in the art world think I'm a cunt,' he said. 'They say to me, "Are you taking the piss out of us?" They think I'm taking the piss because some of my stunts are just so ridiculous. Especially the Live Art fraternity... performance artists who went off on their own strand and called themselves Live Art. I put in applications to them for funding but they always get rejected. I've got another one coming up. They think I'm a cunt as well....'
Indeed, reading about his exploits in the press, it is incredibly easy to think the worst of Mark McGowan. But in person his self-awareness is disarming. He is under no illusions as to the value of his work or his place in the art world. And he genuinely seems not to give a damn that people despise him. 'I do like the idea that people write, "You're a cunt." I like the idea that I'm really sad. And I play on it a lot, especially when I'm doing my performances.'
McGowan's art then, consists of getting himself in the public eye. He is a one-man, one-client PR company, promoting Mark McGowan through his bizarre, some would say pathetic, performances. Essentially, he is Project McGowan. Whether he's threatening to catapult pensioners into space, shouting abuse at fat people or dressing up as a policeman and inviting members of the public to beat him with sticks, the result, ideally, is always the same: Mark McGowan being talked about. The media is the medium, and manipulating himself into the media is McGowan's art. And it has to be said, he is awfully good at it.
But what does he say to accusations that he doesn't actually give a damn about the issues to which he snags his stunts and that what he's actually doing is exploiting the issues to gain publicity for himself? 'You could say that,' he admits. 'Deep down I am an artist, and I am interested in the art element of it, and the effect of it. 'Running Tap' was already there in the gallery, just part of the kitchen, I just turned it on. I didn't have to do a lot, and I thought, "That's really nice." But, you know, water wastage. Is that such a big issue? Are we really bothered about it?' We push the point. Are you? Finally he confesses. 'Not *really*,' he says. He then goes on to suggest that any fear of drought in this country is ridiculous, considering how much it rains in Manchester. Sometimes it seems like the message gets confused. Then you remember: there isn't a message. There's just Project McGowan.
'The Running Tap: 28 June 2005 - 27 June 2006' came to an end when McGowan was threatened by Thames Water, who pointed out that wasting water is actually a criminal offence. He promptly turned the tap off. Thankfully, failure is an important part of McGowan's meticulously crafted technique, as much a part of the art - that is to say, the story - as the challenge itself. As soon as the tap was turned off, another press release was sent out to celebrate. Similarly, when his two-week cartwheeling marathon from Brighton Pier to Margaret Beckett's office ended after four days, with McGowan in a crumpled heap at the side of the road, 18 sticks of Blackpool rock still taped to his face, the issue of people removing pebbles from public beaches finally began to gain some long-overdue column inches. Failure is victory. As long as we pay him any attention at all, McGowan can't lose.
His latest project is a continuation of the running tap. This time it's a car that's left running, eight hours a day, every day for a year, in order, of course, to highlight the issue of air pollution. McGowan says, 'I think it should be interesting because lots of people get really pissed off, which is sort of like the desired thing. It's provocative.' Keen to show that he knows what he's talking about, he reels off a few facts about UK asthma levels and drivers on the continent turning off their engines at level crossings. 'I always research my things quite well.' He pauses. 'Well, maybe not quite well. I research them a little bit. Enough to get some information.'
After the car, McGowan is taking a break from his overtly political work and is planning a new endurance stunt. 'A Canterbury Tale' is due to kick off on Boxing Day. 'I'm going to attempt to crawl on my hands and knees from Tabard Inn in Southwark,' he explains, 'where Chaucer and the pilgrims started their pilgrimage. I'm going to crawl on my hands and knees from there, sixty miles to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett. But I've got a rose between my teeth as I'm crawling along and I've got 18 boxes of chocolates, like Dairy Milk, Celebrations, tied with pieces of string round my wrist, and I've got a triangular sign on my back saying "Could you love me?"' Of course. Suddenly it seems so obvious. So what's the issue? 'It's for all the lonely people at Christmas who haven't found love, or the ones who've found it and lost it.' Explaining something of this motivation for this piece, McGowan adds, 'I remember a time when I was on my own and I just had two fish fingers for Christmas.' 'Nuff said. 'A Canterbury Tale' promises to be one of McGowan's most pointless stunts so far, and maybe, if news programmes are short of festive quirkies, one of his most successful. We wish him well.
When we asked him how he'd feel if we deliberately misquoted him in our article, so as to highlight the issue of piss-poor journalism, he said he wouldn't have a problem. 'It's all OK, isn't it,' he said. Well, yes, maybe it is. Whether it's nailing your feet to a wall to protest against leaves, 'sailing' to Scotland in a shopping trolley or eating a fox for crackheads, it's all OK. It's all art.