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 York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), hot chocolate in Glasgow’s 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 haven’t 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 other’s ideas, they decided to formalise the arrangement and in 1997 the pair announced their partnership with a theatrical depiction of their “deaths” at Edinburgh’s 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 gallery’s doorway was too narrow to accommodate the double-berth coffin.
Few artists have taken themselves less seriously than this pair. If Gilbert and George, art’s 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 Krapp’s 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 wouldn’t 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 world’s 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 York’s 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 world’s first own-blood-art-butchery experiment? Ramsay laughs. On the surface the pair’s 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 Queen’s 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.”