March 18, 2009

BEAGLES AND RAMSAY in COCK AND BULL

at the VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Melbourne

Reviewer: Robert Nelson for The Age newspaper

 

 

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BLOODY artists! In Britain in the 1990s there was Marc Quinn, who used five litres of his blood, congealed and frozen, to make his Self Portraits. Then there were the Australians Stelarc and Nina Sellars, whose Blender from 2005 contained a similar volume of subcutaneous fat extracted from torso and limbs through liposuction.

Now, in an exhibition about to open at the VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery, John Beagles and Graham Ramsay, from Scotland, are going to make sausages with a couple of litres of their blood. Performances dating to 2004 have sometimes included slicing and frying the sausages, which are then offered to the audience.

Documentary photographs suggest the sausages may have been ingested, but health authorities in various countries have taken no chances, closing the performances and causing a stink in the media that would rival the odour of cooking the infamous sausages.

Perhaps the inspectors fear an epidemic like kuru, which arose among the New Guinean Fore highlanders as a result of eating their beloved upon death, or mad cow disease from stock being fed animal flesh. Perhaps the authorities were just worried about sanitation and permits, or perhaps they wanted to express a general and widespread horror of vampirism by caprice or cannibalism for fun. Indeed, no one can contemplate the performance without consternation.

It isn't the only unsettling element in the exhibition. Called Cock and Bull, it adds three Australian male artists to the Scottish duo. They are Jon Campbell, Tony Garifalakis and Matthew Griffin, each of whom has a reputation for plumbing the dark archetypes of alternative masculinity, especially through popular culture.

Among these subwoofer demons, the dapper pair from the UK stand out with an impeccable air of stylish caricature from a previous epoch. In a new film to be screened as part of the exhibition, Beagles and Ramsay appear in wigs and white clothes, 18th-century powdered faces and the languor of gentlemen of leisure.

In still and brooding scenes, they narrate their struggle to find inspiration in the studio. Their fatigue and lethargy are nothing heartfelt: it's all irony and self-parody, deconstructing the male artist as bloodless dandy or fop, perpetually analysing his own process. It's as if being a blood donor to their own bank of ideas has enervated them.

From this motif of artists drawing upon their internal process, Beagles and Ramsay's exploitation of their own body fluid takes on special meaning. Blood for these chaps isn't about a passionate expressive necessity. You don't sense that they have given up their life-blood as a sacrifice, even though they are somewhat drained in the film. The very title of the work, Black Pudding Self-portrait refers satirically to Marc Quinn's work.

Beagles and Ramsay's performance is consciously preposterous. They perversely promote something that belongs beneath the skin. In the macabre performance, the vital juice has leaked from the personal envelope into the social sphere, where it could contaminate other bodies. We might gag at the prospect of eating the artists' blood, in the same way that we hate to see blood in real life, but through its institutions of fantasy, our whole culture is dripping in blood. From nightly television, with its murders and fighting, society is desensitised to the spectacle. A drama without blood is like a comedy without a misunderstanding.

From antiquity onward, aesthetic history prefers to see art as created in marble; but it makes more sense to say that it's cast in blood: the blood of the hero, the ideal victim, the lamb, the saviour, the sacrificial god and symbolic wine of Holy Communion. Our iconography, like so many of our enduring myths, is steeped in blood, supplying contemporary film with an annual reservoir of the mysterious juice.

In good parodic style, Beagles and Ramsay lurch from the refined to the gross. From idle exsanguinated layabout in search of inspiration, their effete persona becomes threatening and nauseous. Their gig is revolting, menacing, alarming: the blood returns, pumping horror throughout your system.

It would be easy to misconstrue Black Pudding Self-portrait as aesthetic deviance. But like most of Beagles and Ramsay's work, it mocks the perversity of culture generally, from ancient rituals to media consumption. If you first turn your mind to their concerns, they won't turn your stomach.