Text for Sanguis Gratia ArtisBeagles and Ramsey exhibition at the Trade Apartment
In an old episode of the American forensics drama, C.S.I., the team have to tackle the case of a prostitute violently murdered for sadistic pleasure. Inevitably, and typically, there is a lot of splattered blood to be analysed. But it is a tiny drop of blood that proves to be the undoing of the killer. The prostitute was H.I.V. positive. In the messy act of killing, a drop of infected blood had splashed in the killer’s eye and the virus had entered the killer’s body through his eye-duct. The object of the killer’s lust, the blood, has a revenge over his obscene enjoyment. Blood is dangerous stuff.
Much of the effort of C.S.I. is, indeed, to make blood make sense: to turn spillages and stains into evidence. In this effort to bring blood onto the register of the symbolic, it contrasts with the role of blood in horror films. Here, blood is that which escapes not only the body but signification: blood seeps through walls; stains floors; terrorises victims. This blood is always excessive; there is always more blood to come. It is as if blood, having escaped the body, threatens to contaminate everything around it. Thus, we could say that blood exists on two registers: in Lacanian terms, these are the symbolic and the real. On the symbolic level, blood is kept in its proper place, as it is in forensic or medical discourse and practice. On the level of the real, blood is precisely that which escapes the symbolic: it is sticky, oozing stuff. Here blood is that which is uncontained and uncontainable.
In his lecture series on Ugliness, the psychoanalyst Mark Cousins made much of the difference between the psychoanalytic categories (which do not coincide with logical categories) of the inside and the outside. The outside, the surface, is that to which we relate: meaning is on the surface not in the interior. For example, we (usually) relate to and imagine another person in terms of his or her skin, face and so on, but not in terms of blood, flesh, bone, various organs and their liquids. The inside is the stuff, the undifferentiated matter, that is contained and masked by the surface. The inside is not usually seen or felt. When this uncontained stuff becomes present, it is always as an interruption or contamination. Mark Cousins described the ugly moment as that in which the inside becomes bigger than the outside: when the surface, and containment, fails. Moreover, this ugly stuff of the inside cannot stay in its place but must contaminate the space around it. A drop of blood on a white dress ruins the whole dress, not just the spot where the stain is. Ugly stuff always threatens to reveal that everything else is really just ugly stuff, too. The ultimate threat is to the perceiving subject: a reminder of the subject’s own disavowed inside. This is why, in a psychoanalytic sense, contamination is always getting closer; in horror films, however fast and far the victim runs, the pursuing ugly monstrous thing is always a little closer than before. Contamination is only ever a return: the subject always was just stuff.
It is no surprise that many persons are not only repulsed by, but faint at, the sight of blood. Fainting is a defence: a shutting-up-shop in the face of the unbearable proximity of meaningless stuff. It is as though meaninglessness itself is contagious. Leaking blood is not so much a sign of mortality or fragility as the breakdown of meaning itself in relation to the subject. It is the body beginning to fail to signify: the disintegration of the illusion of the body as a coherent whole. The subject sees in the disintegration of the other the unacknowledged and unbearable truth about itself.
Beagles and Ramsay, in tapping their own blood in order to make some very special black puddings, are engaged in a self-portraiture in terms of the Lacanian real. That is to say, what is presented, or re-presented, in the blood sausages is not the appearance, the surface, of the artists but the stuff of their bodies. It is therefore appropriate to this idea of the real that there is something down-to-earth, playful and unexpected about the artists turning themselves into a low-quality meat product rather than something more grandiose or gourmet. The repulsion of the real seems to fit easily with the realities of the food industry.
The artist’s blood has been used in art before. However, what Beagles and Ramsay avoid is both the easy reinscription of blood back onto a meaningful register (e.g. Mark Quin’s frozen blood head) and the dull attempt to provoke an audience with the raw stuff of blood (e.g. Franko B. spraying his H.I.V. positive blood over the catwalk). As Slovoj Zizek points out, there is nothing so tired as artists succumbing to the superego injunction to transgress and the subservient need to be recognized. These strategies rely upon and reinforce the suppression of ordinary and everyday experience in art and thereby protect a special role or place for the artist. It is the bathos and humour with which Beagles and Ramsay go about making a sight of themselves that retains the tension in using their own blood as food. Their blood remains out of place precisely to the extent that their activities avoid taking on the logic and status of making art.
There is a careful dialectic here between contamination and containment. By being made into sausages the blood is contained: put back into place. However, this is a different place from where it came. It is an uneasy, or unstable, place precisely because bits of persons are rarely considered to be food and even more rarely without legal implications. It is as though the blood is barely contained, as though it threatens to escape the sausage and revert to oozing sticky stuff at any moment: to become something that contaminates again. Indeed, this is what happens when the sausage is cooked. The smell of the cooking blood escapes the frying pan. Ugly smells invade and contaminate the body: once you have smelt the blood it is already inside you. The response of nausea to ugly smells is to get that which has contaminated you, found its way inside, outside again: to expel the contaminant.
The smell of cooking blood may be unbearable but the process of cooking is humble and mundane. This is a kind of anti-performance art, which does not conform to the absences and abstractions involved in standard performance art procedures such as adopting roles, dramatising the performative situation or confronting the audience. There is nothing shocking in this slightly ludicrous event. Beagles and Ramsay remain themselves: there is no performing involved in the cooking performance, just cooking. The cooking goes on for as long as it is bearable to all involved. There is a negation of differentiation and removal normally found in performance. This is performance that requires no special competencies from either the artists or the audience: no splitting off from anything else. The logical conclusion of the process should be the literal consumption of the black pudding as food: of the blood going back to the inside once again. If this is an outcome that anyone can stomach, remains to be seen. And this is not the least of the appeal of the work.