THE BLOODY ART
OF BLACK PUDDING
The Sunday Times
Beagles and Ramsay are so cutting edge that even the New York art world
was shocked, reports Anna Burnside. When
you have made a black pudding with your blood and cooked it for an exhibition
in a gallery no less prestigious than New Yorks Museum of Modern
Art (MoMA), hot chocolate in Glasgows east end could seem a bit
of an anticlimax. But if Graham Ramsay would rather have more outré
elevenses, he is not letting on.
Ramsay is one half of artistic double act Beagles and Ramsay. If you havent
heard of them nobody, least of all the artists, would be surprised. Despite
working at a time when throwing bricks at Britart has become something
of a national sport, Ramsay, 36, and his art partner John Beagles, 34,
have been working away at their extraordinary and potentially controversial
projects that black pudding, hamburgers "made" from dead
celebrities, a double coffin featuring life-sized models of themselves
with few people paying attention. One reason they have avoided
the controversy is that Beagles and Ramsay do not have a commercial gallery
putting on headline-friendly shows and sending out press releases with
the outrageous bits in bold. As yet no public institutions have bought
their work. Ramsay shrugs this off: "We do big things that are tricky
for people to buy. Even today, people tend to buy paintings or tiny objects."
After graduating from art college, Kirkcaldy-born Ramsay drifted to London,
where he worked with Beagles as a painter and decorator. Sick of stripping
woodchip, the pair moved to Glasgow with its reputation as a cheap, artist-friendly
place to live. It was at this point they turned their backs on their training
in drawing and painting and started creating strange characters and making
videos. "John had made a fat American cop and was making really distressing
videos," recalls Ramsay. "I did a guy in a snorkel parka. So
we both built sets and created characters." After a period of pinching
each others ideas, they decided to formalise the arrangement and
in 1997 the pair announced their partnership with a theatrical depiction
of their "deaths" at Edinburghs Collective Gallery. They
built a life-size double coffin and laid out two full-size models of themselves,
wearing their favourite red plastic coat (Beagles) and rancid trainers
(Ramsay). Their more Gothic impulses for the coffin to arrive in
Cockburn Street in a horse-drawn hearse were curtailed by red tape,
health and safety regulations and the fact that the gallerys doorway
was too narrow to accommodate the double-berth coffin.
Few artists have taken
themselves less seriously than this pair. If Gilbert and George, arts
most famous self-reverential double act, are vulgar and cheeky, Beagles
and Ramsay prefer a plangent self-mockery.After
the double coffin they made more life-sized models of themselves, this
time fast-forwarded to the end of their lives. "We called it 15 December,
2065, our last day of life. It was us lying on this horrible mattress
together; Morecambe and Wise meets Krapps Last Tape. It was like
visiting someone in hospital. You could sit next to the mattress and there
was a video showing vignettes of our squalid life." If these decrepit
dummies did not reduce the artists to figures of fun, then the models
that greeted visitors in the next part of the exhibition finished the
job. Suspended from the ceiling, the pair were re-created as what Ramsay
describes as "completely useless, flaccid, pink sex dolls".
Were they never tempted to create themselves as ripped-bodice love gods?
Apparently not. While the figures in the coffin or on the deathbed may
look like them, Ramsay insists they are "fictionalised characters".
Bizarre as this is, such tomfoolery pales in comparison with extracting
half a litre of your own blood and making it into black pudding. Ramsay
admits that working in partnership has helped manifest their crazier ideas.
"When you work closely with someone you talk each other into ideas
that might otherwise end up lying on the floor of the pub," he says.
"You become like a miniature gang. It emboldens you to do things
you wouldnt do on your own. You egg each other on." Black Pudding
Self Portrait started, says Ramsay, as "a bad joke. We had been kicking
it around for two years at least. We proposed it to a few people, but
it was always rejected". Then MoMA, one of the worlds foremost
galleries, said yes. While it was a highly prestigious commission, it
left Beagles and Ramsay with the problem of how to turn a macabre running
joke into cooked meat. They also had to overcome both the ethics of producing
a pudding with cannibal potential and American customs regulations concerning
the importation of food.
After much head scratching they persuaded a nurse to take the blood: 100ml
a day each for five days. That went straight into the Beagles family
freezer beside the fish fingers.
They found a recipe on the internet and bought skins from a butchers
supplier in East Kilbride. The four puddings were prepared on Beagles
cooker, then posted to the gallery in America to get round any potential
embarrassment at customs and immigration in New York. By the time they
arrived in the gallery they were, admits Ramsay, "pretty high".
For the exhibition the pair set up a kitchen in the gallery. "We
dressed up as butcher-chef-surgeons and cooked the sausages over three
days. We used massive knife sharpeners," he remembers fondly. Then
there was the overpowering smell.
"We were infecting this perfect white cube," says Ramsay, "and
we got a very strong reaction. Everything from hysteria, with people running
out of the gallery, to utter revulsion." Ramsay is delighted the
work repelled New Yorks avant-garde art crowd. It was, he said,
their way of satirising the macho traditions of performance art
"guys taking their clothes off and nailing their dicks to a table
or lacerating themselves". Instead, Beagles and Ramsay produced what
they call "sausage-shaped essence of artist". And no, nobody
ate any of it.
So how do they follow the worlds first own-blood-art-butchery experiment?
Ramsay laughs. On the surface the pairs new exhibition, Unrealised
Dreams, appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Gothic-horror
snack bar. Presented in beautiful walnut frames, Unrealised Dreams is
a series of small-scale Renaissance-style drawings, as ornate and detailed
as the black puddings were starkly brutish. A closer look, however, reveals
that these drawings are the plans for ever more fantastic, and tasteless,
projects: a body suit that makes the wearer dance like the late Joy Division
singer Ian Curtis and a zombie cowgirl ornament that vomits when you press
its stomach. Inspired by the Leonardo da Vinci drawings shown in 2002
at the Queens Gallery, Edinburgh, they are, says Ramsay, the same
old material presented in a more traditional way. "It heightens the
contrast between the content, which is more challenging, and the presentation,"
he says. "We want to make things that are seductive and grotesque."