Housing Benefit Hill: Sitting Target

The funniest part of the whole venture was the way in which people tried to ignore him. An insectizoid alien goes shopping in a rubber suit, and no one notices….
From the Guardian Weekend July 20th 1996


detailofwomaninafishhat1942bypicassoI DON’T know much about art, but I know what makes me laugh. So Picasso painted a picture of a woman with a fish perched on her head, and he called it Woman With A Fish Hat. And that made me laugh.

Mark was in Safeway when I caught up with him. He was buying breakfast cereal. I turned the corner of the aisle, and there he was. The other shoppers were pointedly ignoring him. When they looked, it was surreptitiously, out of the corners of their eyes. I laughed when I saw him, and made some passing comment, but he ignored me. He was in a sort of psychic bubble compounded of concentration, embarrassment and extreme physical discomfort. He was shopping.

He was also dressed in a rubber suit.

Mark is a performance artist, and this was his performance: going shopping in a rubber suit. He had matt-black foam-rubber pads around the elbows and knees, and a sort of foam-rubber breast-plate, like a pair of pendulous breasts. His stomach was distended and pointed, while a pair of foam-rubber buttocks hung down from his behind. On his head was an oversized, sagging brain-pan like an ant’s head, while a chin-plate jutted like an insect’s mandibles. He looked like a sort of insectizoid alien. And there was a balloon hanging from the back of his head, which was attached to a tube so that when he breathed, this coloured bag would pulse in and out like some obscene extension of his brain.

The performance was called Neighbourhood Watch. The advance publicity gave details of his estimated arrival in each shop and all the items he would buy. The funniest part of the whole venture was the way in which people tried to ignore him. An insectizoid alien goes shopping in a rubber suit, and no one notices.

He was waiting in the queue at the check-out counter. The manager told the girl not to say anything. She did what she was told, checking through all of the items. “That’s £10.20,” she said. “Have you got the 20p?”

She was laughing pleasantly at him as he fished in his purse for the coin. It was all so mundane. Except that he was leaving a trail of sweat behind him as he lugged the heavy shopping bags out of the supermarket.

A couple of kids passed him. “How do you wipe your arse?” they asked.

“With my tongue,” he said.

Later he was in a cafe eating an egg sandwich. A couple walked passed the window, and one said: “Look at that! It’s the buzzy-bee man.”

“No it’s not,” the other said, “it’s an ant.”

A woman asked what he was supposed to be.

“He’s a man in a rubber suit, ” I told her. “Something like that.”

“What’s he promoting? He must be promoting something.” She had a child with her, who was staring through the window at Mark. The woman clipped the boy around the ear. “Come ‘ere,” she said, and dragged him away.

Mark’s wife had brought their daughter down. When she saw him she screamed delightedly and ran with her arms outstretched. “Daddy!” she called, as if everything was normal, as if he always dresses this way. Maybe he does. Who knows what artists get up to in the privacy of their own homes?

Various people had come to see him. Some of them were taking photographs. I overheard one of them observe, “he’s always trying to humiliate himself. We’ll be tarring and feathering him next week,” as Mark tottered of through the town in the fine, misty rain, almost slipping on the wet pavement, dripping with sweat and glowing like a beacon.


sitting-target2MARK is also a sculptor.

Some years ago the council rebuilt the beach. This is the way of our crazy era, that some people have the madness and the gall to rebuild beaches. They dug up the old beach and then stuck down huge blocks of plastic-netted hard-core, on top of which they laid piles of grit and sand. The old beach used to go up and down a lot between the groynes, and you’d have to clamber about to get along. The new beach is a wide, flat desert, the upper end scattered with a few scrubby plants.

In the process of rebuilding the beach, they replaced all the old groynes. Some of the artists got permission – plus a small commission – to build benches out of the groyne wood so that people could sit down on the new, wide, flat beach. Sit-down art. Art with a posterior motive. And Mark got one of these commissions.

The result was extraordinary. Monstrous. A huge structure like a barricade, so oversized that he had to add a platform to rest your feet on. At one end he fitted a weird diver’s helmet, wormed about by writhing snakes of steel, like a submariner’s nightmare. And at the other end he cut a jagged hole with a chainsaw.

The hole was meant to remind us of the story of the little boy and the dyke. Instead it just looked as if it had a hole in it. But I was down there once and there was a four-year-old boy climbing through the hole. His mother had to stand on the other side to catch him. And once he’d gone through it once, he had to go through it again.

And there’s not a child in this town who hasn’t sat on that bench and, putting his head into the helmet, gone “Whoo!” just to hear the echo. And the kids climbed over it like a climbing frame. And teenagers gathered there in the evenings to conduct their rituals. And adults congregated there on summer nights to polish off bottles of red wine and to chat. It was an altogether popular feature on an otherwise featureless, wide, flat beach.

After the bench was built and placed – near a pub, so you could sit on it and drink beer if you wanted – they built some new houses. A courtyard development overlooking the sea. Very expensive, very exclusive, all with private garages and burglar alarms on the walls. And the people in the new houses didn’t like the bench. Why not? Because it was there. Because children played on it. Because teenagers went there to share cigarettes and to snog on it. Because adults liked to sit there on a summer evening and pass the time. So the residents got up a petition to have the bench removed. And you know what? The bench was removed.

Never mind that thousands of people had enjoyed that bench. And never mind that thousands of kids had put their heads in the helmet and gone “Whoo!” just to hear the echo. The opinions of a few outsiders have overridden the feelings of the town.

Property rules, OK?


You can contact Mark Fuller here.

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