The Scotsman, Saturday
27 November 2004
"NEVER TRUST ARTISTS," WARNS JOHN Beagles. Were talking
about self-portraiture, a recognised genre in the art world from Rembrandt
to Andy Warhol. That doesnt mean the artist is telling the truth.
Beagles and Graham Ramsay, who have been making art together in Scotland
for seven years - much of it self-portraiture - would know about this.
They have portrayed themselves as old men, psychotic butchers who made
black puddings from their own blood, ventriloquists dummies, and severed
Given all this, meeting them in person is a refreshingly sane experience.
Drinking coffee in the staff lounge at Glasgow School of Art they are
serious, bespectacled, mid-thirties artists, already teaching the next
generation. Beagles deadpan humour aside, there is barely a hint
of wackiness - at least until we get on to the black puddings, of which
The duo, who started working together when they were on Glasgow School
of Arts Master of Fine Art (MFA) course, have been called Scotlands
answer to Gilbert & George. Superficially, though, the pair, who have
shown all over the world, seem to have more in common with Jake and Dinos
Chapman. They work in video, drawing, painting, sculpture, sound, installation
and ... cookery.
They are preparing for Unrealised Dreams, a major new show of drawings
and sculpture. Begun as a series for the Scottish Pavilion at the 2003
Venice Biennale, the project has now been expanded extensively. With more
than a nod to the inventions and grotesques of Leonardo Da Vinci, Ramsay
describes them as "fantastic unrealisable ideas for pieces of artwork
we could do if we had unlimited resources ... and a strong legal team".
A meticulous attention to detail characterises their work, including here,
where they are producing a full-blown "faux Renaissance". They
consulted expert forgers to produce "aged" paper, and will draw
on the techniques used to display the Da Vinci show at the Queens
Gallery in Edinburgh in 2002. However, on closer examination, the viewer
will find they are looking at a sketch for an Iggy Pop catsuit, a scheme
to repopulate Pluto with breeding pairs of Krankies, and a public monument
to all the worlds rotten teeth.
"People will come into the gallery and it will look like a traditional,
historical show," says Ramsay. "So when they get close to the
drawings they will get a little frisson of tension." I ask whether
it isnt slightly cocky to make work in the style of Da Vinci, regarded
by some as the greatest artist who ever lived. "Yeah," says
Ramsay, meekly. "I think we fall pretty far short of him." Nevertheless,
the intricate drawings are remarkable, particularly because they are not
the work of either artist, but a genuine fusion of both. "I might
start a drawing, get so far, but Im not sure where to go next, so
I pass it over to Graham," says Beagles. Ramsay adds: "It is
very much like the rest of the work we make. In the first instance, you
could say one or the other has done a part of it, but by the end of the
process, its neither one nor the other."
"My mum cant
tell which ones were mine!" Beagles laughs. "She got them all
Beagles and Ramsay started working together in the mid-1990s in Glasgow,
but were friends in London before this when both worked for Beagles
dad, "a painter and decorator who was a kind of unofficial support
network for struggling artists". Ramsay, originally from Kirkcaldy,
studied art at the University of Leeds, while Beagles studied painting
at the Slade School in London. Freed up by the multidisciplinary approach
of the Glasgow MFA, the pair found they also had a lot in common with
regard to the art, films and books they liked, and the way in which they
approached their work. Interviewing them, it is clear how smoothly their
opinions concur. In 1998 they stopped making work as individuals, and
now neither has any plans to work alone. "Its not on any level
a fraught relationship, not a locking of horns," says Ramsay. "It
is very easy, we have lots of shared interests, common ground. With two,
you do generate a lot of momentum and energy. It is like a mini-mutual
One of their first large works together was to stage their own double
funeral. A procession through the streets was cancelled at the last minute,
but they lay in state in a double coffin at Edinburghs Collective
Gallery. This was the first manifestation of a theme which would recur
throughout their work, a preoccupation with death, deterioration, mortality.
In 1999, as part of a group show at Edinburghs Fruitmarket, they
transformed themselves into two old men, living in a squalid flat. "At
that time there was a complete obsession with youth in the art world,"
says Ramsay. "The Young British Artist impulse was still going on.
And there we were, unglamorous, cantankerous, recalcitrant," grins
Beagles and Ramsay have a knack, nonetheless, for putting their finger
on the anxieties of the moment. In 2002 they made Burgerheaven - The True
Taste of Stardom, a restaurant franchise with a menu based on celebrities
who have died young: the Lennon Burger, the Diana Burger, the Norma Jean
chicken entrée. With logos, Burger King-style packaging, wipe-clean
menus and even free toys for the kids, it was sufficiently real to send
a shiver down the spine, and aim both barrels at a society obsessed both
with celebrity and food scares.
In 2003, they showed Dead of Night, a video installation for which they
created ventriloquists dummies in their own likeness, inspired by the
Ealing horror film of the same name. Versions of the show, at the Gasworks
in London, have now appeared in Edinburgh and Cardiff. "Theyre
still alive, these little fellas," says Beagles. "Every six
months or so they get out of their little boxes. We quite liked them when
we first made them, now theyre quite terrifying. I dont keep
them in the house anymore. Theyve been banished to the studio."
"But we regard that as a breakthrough piece of work," says Ramsay.
"That was when we started to move away from direct self-representation.
We had made body casts, works with photos of ourselves, videos of ourselves."
Like many of their works, Dead of Night exists in the grey area between
black humour and the grotesque. Its no surprise that both are fans
of Beckett. "Bleak, but very very funny," says Ramsay. "We
both quite like the absurdity of British comedy. Like Rising Damp - what
could be bleaker than that?" "Although we prefer not being referred
to as the Morecambe and Wise of Scottish art," adds Beagles. "Or
Vic and Bob. Or The Two Ronnies. Mind you, that was our own fault ..."
The use of humour in their work is a deliberate way of engaging an audience.
Beagles and Ramsay want a physical response, be it a laugh or a look of
repugnance. "Were interested in intrusion, rupture," says
Ramsay. "Were not particularly interested in making things
that sit nicely on the walls that you can engage with at a certain amount
of aesthetic distance."
One show where a reaction was guaranteed was this years Black Pudding
Double Self-Portrait at PS1 MOMA in New York, where the artists made traditional
black puddings with their own blood. "Its to do with the move
away from literal self representation," begins Beagles. "To
distill our essence down to ..." To what exactly? Half a litre each
of blood, extracted using syringes at the painstaking rate of 50ml per
arm per day, and stored in Beagles freezer. "A nasty, long
process," Ramsay mutters. "I had bruises all down my arms."
Then they cooked black pudding to a traditional recipe. Did they not feel
rather squeamish? "Actually," says Beagles, "the worst
thing was the smell of the beef suet, not the blood. Guaranteed to turn
you vegan overnight. But when we came to edit the video, we found that
neither of us could bear to look at the footage with the needles."
The cooking done, they then faced the challenge of transporting the puddings
to New York. "How do you take something made with fresh blood into
America?" says Beagles. "We thought we were going to have to
go in with these things strapped inside our coats, and get carted off
to Guantanamo Bay." In the event, the puddings arrived by post. The
show, in which the pair wore butchers aprons and brandished cooking implements,
was underway. However, they stopped short of tasting their concoction.
"We almost got the gallery closed down, they were really worried
about the health issues," says Ramsay. "We could have been up
for two charges, cannibalism and for serving noxious substances. That
would get us about ten years here, and about 200 years in the US!"
Nevertheless, they had realised a dream - the black puddings appeared
in the first Unrealised Dreams series in Venice. "We have done a
couple more Unrealised Dreams since," says Beagles. "Well
be doing them till the grave."
Grave? Now, theres an idea...