Mark McGowan speaking at Creative Networks, Leeds College of Art

I knew absolutely nothing of this performance artist before I attended the talk, and so my expectations were low. Good job really.

He commenced his talk with interminable video clips of his appearances on breakfast shows and the like. It was apparent that he filled the media slot usually preceded with the words, “And finally…” and features things like skateboarding cats or balloonists caught on camera, tangling with electricity pylons. This produced several thoughts for me.

  1. Why, after so many high profile pundits have expressly forbid it, do speakers insist on taking up valuable time with video clips I could just as easily see on the internet. They are there in person to tell the audience something personal. If I can get just as much from a video, what is the point of them being there at all? Admittedly, a short clip is sometimes warranted if they want to speak specifically about what is in the clip, but twenty minutes is far too long.
  2. The works, as described in the news reports, were more akin to old Monty Python comedy sketches than anything I would define as art.
  3. The overriding impression I got from this video montage was a desperate cry for attention – “Look how famous I am! I have been on all of these specious shows!”

Thankfully, he stopped the video clips and started to speak. What came out though wasn’t much better. There was a football story about psychologically driven managers, another football analogy about something or other and references to trips abroad. Absolutely nothing about his philosophical standpoint or the values and beliefs that he holds (I assume he has some because he referred to GlaxoSmithKline as being ‘dirty’ patrons of the arts).

Finally, he asked for questions and during this interchange, something interesting cropped up. It was revealed that he had spent time living on the streets and in mental asylums. This produced an automatic reconfiguration of gears in my mental processes and several trains of thought emerged.

His back-story is one of mental turmoil, do I need to re-evaluate the work? It is like being shown a painting and then being asked to express an opinion of it. You say you don’t like it, it’s childish. You are then told, it was created by a tortured genius, do you still think it is childish? Rationally, it is still the same artefact that you professed to dislike. Psychologically however, your perception has changed, which begs the question, “Is it the thing itself which is art or is it the myth surrounding the thing, that is the art?”

Well, even with that insight I was unable to find any additional dimension to his work. It did perhaps explain to some extent though, the introductory video. If I had come from such a difficult background and discovered a trick that got me a lot of attention, I too would be proudly telling anyone who cared to listen, to see how media worthy I am! As a self publicist, he is excellent.

Infuriatingly, the very last thing that he commented on, produced the greatest insight. He said, people had pointed out that a lot of his work was ’shame’ based. And indeed, a lot of the video clips showed him crawling on his hands and knees performing acts of humility and supplication. Considering his early history, this was a fascinating area for discussion but tragically, it ended where it should have started.

From what I learned that evening, this Banksy of the performance world, is a comedian. This is not to denigrate comedy, one of the sharpest tools of social commentary that we have, but it only cuts so deep. It stimulates the intellectual part of our brains. Great art goes much deeper and penetrates the hidden, silent world of our souls, and moves us.

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