Mark McGowan’s Where’s Daddy’s Pig? (Trade Gallery, 2013)
You could probably argue that there’s no real reason to visit Where’s Daddy’s Pig?, the Mark McGowan exhibition that’s been running at Trade Gallery since May, on the grounds that everything it contains is already part of his own ARTIST TAXI DRIVER YouTube channel, where McGowan regularly posts campaigning rants (and occasionally more subdued musings) on anything from the privatisation of the NHS to the history of immigration in the UK, and from the function of corporate gallery sponsorship to devastating parodies of Daily Mail populism.
There are rumoured to be around 1,500 of McGowan’s ten-minute videos available online, and he adds more – sometimes several – most days. Over the years, he’s also developed a strong online following, so the chances are, if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, a link to one or another of his efforts will more likely have crossed your path than not. Long threads of debate rage underneath each bulletin, debates which McGowan himself never seems to enter, and run a gamut from 38 Degrees activists to David Icke-quoting conspiracy theorists; from fellow artists to declarations of ‘like’ and ‘legend!’. One recent subject of heated Facebook contention was whether McGowan drives a taxi or not in real life.
With all that in mind, it’s clear that this is an artist who has made Social Media his canvas, and political campaigning his subject and purpose, but who also tends to contain his own views within the rants and musings he uploads. So the question raised by viewing Where’s Daddy’s Pig? on the big screens and in the dedicated dark spaces of Trade Gallery is whether McGowan’s campaigning activities are ‘art’ at all, and if they are, whether they gain or lose anything when seen, as Trade director and McGowan’s curator Bruce Asbestos explains, “without the framework of the internet around them”.
The answer arrives in three very distinct segments that occupy the huge screens in different ways. The first room edits together a string of bulletins from McGowan’s Where’s Daddy’s Pig? protest, staged on April 24th 2013, in which he pushed a toy pig from the doors of King’s College Hospital, where he’d been receiving treatment for bowel cancer, all the way to David Cameron’s front doorstep at 10 Downing Street, a distance of roughly four miles, to symbolise the ‘pigs at the trough’ of a House of Lords vote on a health reform bill that opened the NHS to private providers of the sort many of those voting were invested in and funded or employed by. The conflicts of interest and implications of the legislation went notoriously under-reported by the press and BBC.
The parts of this sequence were originally uploaded, one after another, on the day of the protest, as a series of live updates, but here they form a kind of low budget documentary whose narrative momentum gives it all a very different feel to the urgent updates you’d have experienced by following McGowan’s feeds during the event itself. A follow up protest a few weeks later saw McGowan push the same pig from Downing Street to the City of London, which leads to the second room’s footage, filmed outside the Royal Courts of Justice: an impassioned speech to a gathered audience and an interview with a surprisingly sympathetic banker, who seems pretty much on-board with McGowan’s take on things.
Both these films differ from the shorter, sharper shocks of their online equivalents, but perhaps the most revealing room is the final one, where a showreel of McGowan’s patented ARTIST TAXI DRIVER monologues is shown, drawn from all points in the development of the persona. What we see is both informative (for all his emphasis on being the angrily opinionated London cabbie wearing sunglasses and raging behind a steering wheel, there’s a lot of variation and more research than there seems here) and interesting, both as campaigning material and in an aesthetic sense: we can see McGowan exploring the textures of frustration and rage in the same way a painter might explore the properties of a particular tonal colour palette.
The showreel covers a lot of ground, from early art-centred commentaries to a vivid bit of word-painting about Irish navvies in England and a gleeful impersonation of a tabloid reader decrying gay rights while leering at the fake lesbianism in the ‘family’ newspapers that pander to his prejudices. It illustrates that while McGowan’s template is deliberately restricted – just him, a digital camera and the view from the dashboard of his car – he plays a surprising number of variations on the format: sometimes saddened, sometimes enraged, sometimes philosophical and sometimes pretty much calling out across the clutter of the internet for an immediate revolution against the bosses, capitalists and MPs.
Where’s Daddy’s Pig? as an exhibition, then, shows the work of an artist with a very definite purpose and a strict form, and the ARTIST TAXI DRIVER persona is glimpsed evolving over time, like a performance being gradually honed in public. Whether it’s best seen as art or activism is another matter. Viewing the material in a darkened room with no distractions gives it a very different impact to that it carries online, where the content trumps the form pretty decisively. Perhaps showing this work as art weakens its campaigning impact. After all, the upshot of that Facebook discussion about McGowan’s actual or pretended cab-driving was also a debate about whether what he was doing was genuine or some kind of fake. In this context, maybe being an artist is more a liability than an asset, and this gathering of films suggests that McGowan’s online persona has grown into a purposefully blunt instrument walking a very fine line.
Where’s Daddy’s Pig? at Trade Gallery (May – Aug 2013)