'DEAD OF NIGHT'
AT GASWORKS GALLERY, LONDON 2003
REVIEW BY RACHEL WITHERS, ARTFORUM OCTOBER 2003
Art critics and cultural
theorists looking for a potentially infinitely expandable metaphor might
do worse than plump for "ventriloquism". A quick trawl through
shows that the motif is almost universally adaptable, signaling (among
other things, and in no particular order): the death of the author, the
artwork in process, problems of free will and determination, the workings
of ideology, Cartesian dualism, the failings of Western idealism, cyborg
identity and practically every psychoanalytical model of individual or
collective subject formation one might care to dredge up. But as far as
art practice goes, just a hardy few have risked invoking ventriloquism
directly, among them Laurie Simmons, Asta Groting, and now Glasgow duo
John Beagles and Graham Ramsay, in their installation Dead Of Night, 2003.
The show's star exhibit was a pair of ventriloquists' dummies, handcrafted
by the artists to represent their chubbier-cheeked younger selves. These
were showcased in a crimson mock-up of a theatre; the two dummies presided
over a spot lighted stage, and their voices squeaked and croaked show--time
banalities - "Thank you all and God bless" - from a hidden speaker.
Backstage a dressing room with theatrical mirror, toiletries, and a litter
of human - and dummy - sized clothing also featured a faux-closed circuit
screening of a video of the two po-faced artists and their dummies performing
on stage. A third space featured a video shot in the evocatively decrepit
Britannia Panopticon Music Hall in Glasgow; this was a montage of campy
horror movie cliches - pans up and down spiral staircases; manic interactions
between the artists and dummies; the dummies, seemingly possessed of independent
life, chattering together in deserted auditoriums. Also on show were a
number of studio portrait-style photographs, in ostentatiously tasteless
gilt frames, of the four protagonists.
Unenthusiastic UK art critical responses to Dead Of Night complained that
the installation wasn't spooky and that the artists had failed to invest
their theme with any psychological profundity. Both observations are true
but miss the point. Beagles and Ramsay's work frequently foregrounds images
of evacuated subjecthood (for example, Ramsay's hilarious 1996 solo piece
Robot Snorkel Parka Prototype, in which a remote-controlled robot 'visits'
the the Mackintosh Gallery of the Glasgow School Of Art); it also evidences
a persistent interest in devalued symbolic currency, critical motifs that
have collapsed through over-use (see here their blending of 'burger culture'
and celebrity worship in the performance Burgerheaven - The True Taste
Of Stardom 2001/2002, or We Are The People - Suck On This, 1999, in which
Ramsay, clothed and coiffed a la Travis Bickle, delivered a meaningless
two-signature petition to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.
In a recently published essay, Beagles and co-author Dave Beech broadsided
the tendency of cultural studies to recast the consumption of popular
culture as a radical activity. In their view, this is an academic distortion.
Beagles and Ramsay's evacuated tropes might therefore be read as filibustering:
Delivering neither a slick, brainy critique nor a dumbly celebratory endorsement,
their hollow men survive simply by sticking around (a Baudrillardian tactic,
though the artists would probably hate the suggestion). A clue left in
the Dead Of Night dressing room support this reading - a copy of Hamlet,
lying open at Act 3 Scene 2. Hamlet is giving those two self-declared
mediocrities Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a hard time. The two Danish
patsies' big mistake is to leave the stage and set off for England. Dead
Of Night's double acts refused to fall for that one, even after their
audience had left. "It's so wonderful to be here! You've been a wonderful
audience!" the dummies could be overheard cackling - to an empty