Beagles and Ramsay’s first solo show in Scotland was posthumous. The artists
attended Goodnight, Goodnight, at Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery in 1997,
lying in state in a fetching double coffin. In 1999 their severed heads
could be glimpsed rotting in the murky depths of the lair of an infant
serial killer in Head Lung Dead, a show at the Glasgow Project Room. By
August 2002 they were dead again, when a press release announced the
shocking news that they were brutally murdered on the eve of a major
retrospective at the Hogslande Kunstverein in Hogsberg, Germany.
If the myth of making art is described in all the best biopics as a means of
achieving immortality – the transcendence of the artwork finally overcoming
the daily humiliation and mortification of the flesh – Beagles and Ramsay’s
art condemns them, in their myriad double self-portraits, to repeated and
perpetual indignity. The evil twins, duplicates, dolls, doubles and
doppelgangers – bearing the distinctive faces of the artists themselves –
that rampage or slump through their oeuvre (the dominant modes of activity
in this work tend to fall into one of two categories: complete inaction or
hysterical overreaction) find that death is never a complete release. They
repeatedly rise again to suffer the regular affronts of senility, tooth
decay, impotence, flatulence, bad skin, inferior diet, and daytime television.
The anxieties, both cultural and social, that run through the work
of Beagles and Ramsay read like a contemporary chronology of perceived
malaise. Early work featured the notorious Scottish diet, food scares
including e-coli and BSE, child criminality and neighbours from hell. More
recently, their interest is in narratives that describe broader but equally
anxious phenomena: political disenfranchisement, the culture of consumerism,
and the cult of celebrity. Across their body of work, a satirical recitation
of urban myths and media scares rubs alongside deeper fears and genuine
threats. The perils of consumption are a recurring theme – threats of
contamination, food poisoning and infection are all-pervasive – and the
persistent risk of external threat and unexpected or violent death hangs
over the artists’ many representations of the disintegration and degradationof the body.
Beagles and Ramsay have worked in A4 poster format, installation,
photography, video, music, critical writing and short stories – and often a
conflation of all these. Increasingly their emphasis is on elaborate
theatrical settings and their methods of working akin to low budget movie
production. In a context where we’re schooled to expect the distinctive
voice of the artist, they have chosen to speak in a whole range of tongues –
from the satanic to the pathetic. Their early video narratives – in a number
of genres, from pop promo, to contemporary art video and public information
film – featured a cast of often recurring characters: Gary the Misunderstood
Toddler, an uncontrollable child criminal; John Saxon, a kind of British
everyman and inadequate John Bull clad in a parka and the Old Men, a
projection of the artists themselves in lonely and repulsive old age.
Most of their work involves, at some level, a satire of the current
conventions around the production and display of art. Issues of sponsorship
and product placement featured in early shows like Goodnight, Goodnight and
at the !st Floor Gallery, Melbourne, in 1997, when the artists reflected the
growing corporate presence in the gallery by liberally sprinkling their
installations with silver plastic shopping bags bearing the logo of LiDL,
the no frills German supermarket chain; Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds reworked
for cut-price capitalism.
Invited, in 1999, to take part in Evolution Isn’t Over Yet, at Edinburgh’s
Fruitmarket Gallery one of a series of ‘new generation’ shows, worshipping
at the altar of youth, the artists adopted their Old Men personas. In an art
world afflicted by neophilia, their installation featured life-size effigies
of the artists in bed aged, their latex-crafted faces pockmarked and flaky,
their pyjamas slightly soiled. In an accompanying video, Trilogy, the Old
Men are shown in their miserable flat. Slouching on the sofa, snoozing in
their double bed, on the loo and taking a bath, they pass down the folk
wisdom they have gathered in their long lives. Their profound words turn out
to be the banal lyrics of the songs Borderline, U Got the Look and Express
Yourself. The Old Men, it turns out have, learnt little, their minds are
addled and worn by years of exposure to pop music and there’s a yawning gap
between the sexy, youthful lyrics and their own deteriorated state of body and mind.
Dub’L InTROOder, the artists’ curatorial project at Glasgow’s Transmission
Gallery in 2001 featured work by artist groupings including Bank, Muntean
and Rosenblum and the Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley video collaboration
Heidi. Beagles and Ramsay’s own work for the show took the form of a ‘light
industrial unit’, an impressively shiny aluminium structure, placed in the
centre of gallery and fronted with a corporate portrait of the artists as
directors of their companies New Heads on the Block and Rope a Dope
productions. Inside, the artists portrayed themselves as mechanised labour.
These portraits as Half Life Size Drone Workers, were surrounded by their
industrial output, a range of children’s toys echoing Scotland’s
self-lacerating image, including Hamish the Hooligan (commemorating the
Scottish football fans who tore up the Wembley turf in 1977)
and Burger Babe (the body of a children’s doll, with the head of hamburger).
This interest in modes of artistic production culminates in the Burgerheaven
project in Eindhoven (2001) and Toronto (2002) where the artists set
themselves up as a fast food outlet, using the commercial structure of the
franchise, and familiar marketing tools such as public leafleting,
promotional T-shirts, corporate colours and design.
Their work often includes pastiches of other art works, The Wilson Twins,
for example, in the video The Shutters are Down or Marc Quinn,
in the case of the, as yet unrealised, proposal to manufacture and sell
black pudding using their own blood. But the idea of critical distance often
collapses in the work of Beagles and Ramsay.
They inhabit the same messy and compromised world that they portray. They
are angry, puerile and spiteful as often as they are funny. They are
vulnerable, weak and complicit. They are embarrassed and embarrassing.
Spend any time with their work and their genuine love of comedy, horror
movies, dance music, and television is also apparent. In an art world
that often takes an anthropological interest in ‘real life’ and ‘pop
culture’, Beagles and Ramsay are enthusiasts, shaped and smitten by the world they inhabit.
They are also inveterate and strategic liars, largely as a matter
of pragmatism. When they were unable to obtain work by art duo Bob and Bob
for Dub’L InTROOder they simply faked it. For Museum Magogo, a gargantuan
gallery project in Glasgow and Melbourne where they invited local and
international artists to contribute works to a show which was constructed as
a pastiche of the conventions of the art museum, the genuine works were
alternated by fakes attributed to artists including Martin Kippenberger,
Lawrence Weiner, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin. Some of their work is
virtually undetectable: their jokes, minor hoaxes and japes, the spurious or
impossible proposals to galleries or funding bodies. But they lavish huge
care and minute attention on their material productions including
model-making, intricate sets, music and songs and elaborate written materials.
Beagles and Ramsay are most frequently seen in the tradition of great
British comedy duos like Morecambe and Wise, Reeves and Mortimer and Derek
and Clive. But their work also evokes the more ancient and irrational humour
of carnival. Death stalks their work, often in his contemporary guise of the
serial killer – even the art magazine they edit Uncle Chop Chop is named
after a notorious murderer. Their ambivalence about their bodies and their
emphasis on the frailties of the flesh is matched by a derision that
reflects an interest in the long tradition of dark philosophical and
political satire in work by Rabelais, Swift, Stern and the restoration poetJohn Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.
Like those writers, the artists’ parade of grotesques, their invocation of
death and their bodily humour often has explicit political targets that are
overlooked amongst the jokes. Burgerheaven, as well as a parody of
contemporary production, is a reworking of Swift’s pamphlet A Modest
Proposal in which he suggested solving famine in Ireland by eating children.
Beagles and Ramsay propose we can resolve our appetite for intimacy with
dead celebrities by chewing their flesh.
Their most explicit work on the subject of political alienation, made for
the ICA’s Crash, is the video We Are The People Suck On This, in which
Graham Ramsay takes on the Robert De Niro role in Taxi Driver. A
mild-mannered Travis Bickle, we see him pill-popping and grimacing round the
streets of Whitehall and Westminster eventually handing in the artist’s
hopeless petition to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, only to be gently led
away by the police. It’s a piece in which the coruscating images of the
original film – New York as a nauseating emporium in which everything is for
sale – are translated into contemporary British terms. In one brief moment
Ramsay stops in front of a bright façade, a shop front bearing the slogan
Easy Everything. The grand streets of establishment London exemplify of a
kind of resigned consensus in which political institutions are essentially
moribund and pessimistic, replaced by flag-waving symbolism and rampant consumerism.
But themes of disenfranchisement and powerlessness permeate all of their
work. Their self portraits as Budget Range Sex Dolls, ‘complete with
prescription spectacles, heart shaped pubes and grip friendly hair’ are the
embodiment of ineffectual impotence: the artists rendered as weak, pink and
flaccid playthings. The video Geezer Gotta Flamethrower is as much a
portrait of the artists as inadequate parents of their own terrifying
creation, the toddler Gary, as it is a satire of child crime.
In this exhibition, Dead of Night, named after the Ealing portmanteau
chiller, the artists appear as ventriloquists dummies: a reflection of their
interests in voicelessness and apathy and their unabashed pleasure in theatrical set pieces.
In that film the evil dummy with a life of its own is brutally smashed by
its owner, the hapless and fearful ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave,
only to survive by taking possession of his soul. Likewise Beagles and
Ramsay are likely to die again and rise again many more times in the course of their art.