BUTCHERING DA VINCI

The Scotsman, Saturday 27 November 2004

SUSAN MANSFIELD


"NEVER TRUST ARTISTS," WARNS JOHN Beagles. We’re talking about self-portraiture, a recognised genre in the art world from Rembrandt to Andy Warhol. That doesn’t 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 heads.


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 more later.


The duo, who started working together when they were on Glasgow School of Art’s Master of Fine Art (MFA) course, have been called Scotland’s 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 Queen’s 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 world’s 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 isn’t 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 I’m 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, it’s neither one nor the other."

"My mum can’t tell which ones were mine!" Beagles laughs. "She got them all wrong!"
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. "It’s 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 support system."


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 Edinburgh’s 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 Edinburgh’s 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.


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. "They’re 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 they’re quite terrifying. I don’t keep them in the house anymore. They’ve 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. It’s 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. "We’re interested in intrusion, rupture," says Ramsay. "We’re 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 year’s Black Pudding Double Self-Portrait at PS1 MOMA in New York, where the artists made traditional black puddings with their own blood. "It’s 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. "We’ll be doing them till the grave."
Grave? Now, there’s an idea...