John Beagles & Graham Ramsay drew on TV comedy shows, dance culture and unhealthy, low-cost food products: in one galleryspace bedecked in colourful A4 flyers bearing such legends as `Howdy Bourgeois Deviant’, `Scum from Scumland’ and `We are the masters now’, the pair scattered shopping bags from Lidl, the no-frills German Supermarket chain. A video compilation of short sketches played on a monitor while the duo’s musical compositions could be heard through headphones – memorable high-lights included the dance anthem E, not a song about ecstasy but the virus e-coli, and the chant Lidl Boom By Ya, a reworking of the incantation sung to Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974.
If this was all too doltish for some, there was worse to follow. The duo’s video showcased comic characters such as Fat Cop, a send-up of patriarchy’s finest, John Saxon, a sad but sinister figure dressed in a snorkel parka, and Gary the Misunderstood toddler, a small puppet armed with a flame-thrower who stalks the housing estates of South London to the soundtrack, Geezer Gotta Flame Thrower. In an adjacent, darkened space the bodies of the artists had been laid to rest in a double coffin, their double-act having died before the show opened. Malevich was, to my knowledge, the last artist to design his own coffin but Beagles & Ramsay went one better by realistically manufacturing their own corpses.
This show might have irked or wearied those who expect such humour from a Viz comic, and I guess it was meant too, but Beagles & Ramsay are not just adolescent clowns, their shit is serious! They do not aspire to be cool and cerebral but to make fun from the vulgar, embarrassing and sometimes tragic aspects of everyday life. Beagles & Ramsay’s exhibition raised further issues about art and the everyday, a much used but seldom defined term. Henri Lefebvre identified the everyday as all non-specialised activities; like philosophy, composing music and astrophysics, art is a specialised activity. The Avant Garde famously worked to collapse the distinction between art and everyday life, which is not a motive shared by the majority of artists under review. All the artworks mentioned above, however, are made meaning-ul in some way by drawing upon everyday experiences and encounters.
The important question is where do artists position themselves in relation to those experiences? In the case of Beagles & Ramsay, they neither sentimentalise nor valorise the everyday and the popular, nor do they offer a distanced critique. Robert Garnett has recently written that the Sex Pistols were `too low to be low’: that is to say that they neither celebrated pop nor aspired to the status of artists, both of which were equally distrusted. While Beagles & Ramsay remain artists, their work is sympathetic to this position. The challenge Conceptualism presented was the role demanded of its audience. Instead of a passive, disinterested viewer Conceptualism postulated an active reader. What is to be done if you believe Conceptualism’s legacy often turns out to be an institutional marriage with cultural studies or a new institutional protocol. One option is offered by Webster’s approach which consisted of a series of propositions or experiments with which artists and visitors could engage. The other option is to allow Gary the Misunderstood Toddler some time in museums and institutions. This last proposition might be a little reactionary but it seemed like a good idea to this London-based writer on a visit to Scotland early in December last year.