Beer + Cheeseburger + Ice cream / Spaghetti x Chips = Graham Ramsay
Graham Ramsay
200 Gertrude Street Gallery, Melbourne
5 -19 December 1998
Review by Daniel Palmer


It’s been some time now since the West has conferred cultural value on being portly. Most often it signifies greed, at least moral inferiority. The overweight male remains all but invisible in the media except as a health risk. Recent medical findings have only accelerated a trend towards downsizing. Nevertheless, the spectacular logic of entertainment in millennial capitalism dictates that anything goes. Thus, "gut barging" is a growing media sport in pub-crazed Britain, and, in late 1998, fatness and the male body formed the subject of a Melbourne art experiment by a visiting YBA, in residence at 200 Gertrude Street as part of the Melbourne Scotland Cultural Exchange.


Graham Ramsay’s conceptual aim in Beer + Cheeseburger was to increase his body weight as much as possible within a two month period of forced high calorie consumption, combined with "a programme of zero physical exercise." This performance was meticulously documented, and the results neatly summarised in a side-on before-and-after shot, showing two pale hairy bellies; the one on the right is ten kilos heavier, bulging over the belt buckle.
A wall plastered with diet sheets detailed, day by day, the entirety of his consumption over the period, as well as any incidental notes (the Melbourne gas crisis in October made things awkward, as did tooth pains following too much sweet food). On another wall was the obligatory graph. To implicate the audience, a bowl refilled with hot chips at regular intervals on opening night was left on a podium.


There was also a short video of the gut’s growth made with fellow Scot, Clara Ursitti. In this up-beat documentary, Ramsay scoffs junk food, orders hot chips, and watches The Simpsons. The De Niro technique is held up as an inspiration, and Marlon Brando's dinner is perfectly reproduced. Both exemplars remind us that this is a specifically male inter-text.
The accompanying catalogue, in the form of an interview with the artist, parodies the language of popular diet programmes—of "strict regimes" and the like—while also recognising the contradictions of diet and consumer culture, reconciled only in advertising dollars. But this knowingness is undercut by Ramsay’s own acknowledged decadence as an artist, and his stated, yet impossible, desire "to attain the higher state of untroubled consumer."


Different audiences would certainly have had different reactions to this spectacle of the male body. As a comment on our excessive consumption, hedonism, and the rules that guide it, the show was neither didactic nor merely ironic. Its appeal was both voyeuristic and vicarious, circus-like and mundane - like the opening night screening of Ramsay's collaborative video work with John Beagles Video Hits and Misses, which can be read as a comic melange of white British masculinity in crisis. As much as Ramsay's work could be discussed philosophically in terms of unproductive expenditure, the key to such vernacular expression lies more in its proudly inane humour. As for too much fat, well, it's still bad for you.