Beagles & Ramsay have possessed the Gasworks gallery, turning it into a miniature, music hall theme-park: a ‘Dead of Night Experience.’ Two small rooms are contrived to stand for front of house and back stage. A third room has a video, in which the exhibits come to life. The stars of the show are two ventriloquists’ dummies, altered so that one resembles John Beagles and the other Graham Ramsay.
‘Dead of Night’ is the title of an old British horror film in which a ventriloquist’s dummy torments its ventriloquist and ends up possessing his body. This show is a rude collision of horror film suspense and heritage theme-park display. It is full of things stolen, faked or mimicked. Everything, though, is immaculately made. Nevertheless, the show is a kind of impostor and Beagles & Ramsay are impostors in their own show. The impostor is someone who has to lie in order to be included: through deceit, the impostor is a carrier of truth about exclusion.
The show is artificial, melodramatic and very funny. On the one hand, it is an assault on the impoverished ways in which art is made, displayed and consumed. The show can be read as a satire. But on the other hand, serious claims about this work might be undercut by the histories of its constituent parts: by the transparency of immediate pleasures. Sophisticated interpretation might be disarmed by the work’s artificiality, melodrama and humour. This is an irresolvable dilemma: the conflict between the ways Beagles & Ramsay’s aesthetically irredeemable loot is transformed by being made into art and the ways in which it persists untransformed.
The first room is ruby red. It is dominated by a small, raised stage. The curtains are open. The two ventriloquists’ dummies sit on stools, centre stage. The ventriloquist’s dummy is always disquieting: an approximation of humanity at once uncannily similar and amusingly different.
The dummy is an inadequate form for any normal portraiture: not only does it lack detail but the dominant form of the dummy will absorb the element of portraiture. These are ludicrous, monstrous, anti-self-portraits. The dummies mock artistic aggrandisement. In identifying themselves with the inanimate, impoverished dummy, the artists are an empty presence, who only come to life as crazed performers.
On the walls are three large photographs in vulgar gilded frames: a formal portrait of John Beagles and his dummy wearing matching red shirts; Graham Ramsay and his dummy wearing blue shirts; and a more sinister portrait of the two dummies together.
Sounds leak into the room. Distorted voices says “hello” or “how are you?” There is eerie laughter.
The second room, backstage, is green. On the carpeted floor, the dummies’ two coffin-like carrying cases lie open. There are two chairs with red and blue shirts hanging over their backs. There is a make up table with theatrical and personal paraphernalia. The dummies’ child sized socks are scattered about. A copy of Hamlet lies open on one of the chairs. All these bits and pieces seem to be clues: the scene invites a forensic gaze. This is a familiar scene of filmic melodrama.
On a small monitor, above head height, a video plays clips of the artists and dummies performing. Scenes fade in and out as if memories or flashbacks.
In the final, dark room is a video projection. The three sections of the video were shot in a grand music hall, now disused and in disrepair. It is spookily lit and eerie music plays throughout.
In the first section, the camera moves through empty corridors and down dusty staircases. A large wooden door swings open. The dummies are revealed, backs to us, sitting inside.
In the second section, low spotlights pick out the two dummies sitting in an empty, gloomy auditorium. Their heads move. We cut to a closer view. They look at each other; they talk; they laugh.
The third shows the dummies up close. They are animated and demonic. Heads spin round; jaws chatter; they laugh hysterically. The artists now appear, mimicking the dummies’ excessive displays. It is as if the dummies are now operating the artists: as if the artists are possessed by their portraits.
‘Dead of Night’ is radically entertaining. As much as this work assaults complacent habits of art making and display, Beagles & Ramsay obviously love the sources they plunder and mimic. This is the work of fans. The love of the amateur sits uneasily with the cynical reason of professionalism. The show is a riot.