Ramsay Bird

Gimpel Fils

An exhibition handout penned by Graham Ramsay and Gavin Bird but attributed to David Batty, a well-known footballer, tells us all about Ramsay Bird’s first solo show. Well, perhaps it doesn’t. Batty plays for England and the current league leader, Leeds (where Ramsay and Bird met and studied). At the time Ramsay Bird’s show opened, he was suspended from the game due to an accumulation of offences on the field. Ramsay Bird are young and brash. They do what one would expect—they cover the issues that need to be covered in a lighthearted way. What they possess, however, which helps a lot, is an understanding that, in order to be more than momentarily engaging, irony must be central to the working process. That it must function as a continual probing into the adequacy of ideas and categories, rather than as a mere tone of voice. In their statement they suggest that, although it might look as though they are concerned with ecology (they use wildlife imagery) and questions of identity (though two people, they contribute to a single practice, and they have appropriated Batty’s name and earlier that of “John-Michael Biscuit”), what interests them primarily is the political circumstances that surround their practice.

Both text and image are called upon in Ramsay Bird’s work to symbolize, denote, describe, or otherwise refer outside themselves to a range of esthetic and social issues. It all looks so simple: lots of pictures on the wall, and each one an image with an uncompromising text across it. The pictures, which are printed onto carpet, feature penguins and tropical fish. The penguins are both inhabitants of an endangered environment and signs for society’s aggressive power brokers, whose profit motive bears a certain responsibility for their endangerment. They are also symbolic, due to their south Atlantic habitat and its geographical and climatic opposition to England. The titles printed across the penguins, Carpet Bombers, Frog Bomber 92, Kill the Fascists, and Richard Nixon (all works 1992), are forthright, but they never manage to cohere with the images into a single, unambiguous statement. Terms and characterizations cannot be applied to either side of the equation, and things constantly flip from one extreme to the other, like the Antarctic snow into the Kuwaiti sand, deliberately straining the figural possibilities of the works’ elements.

What Ramsay Bird are after is to use their avowedly banal verbal and visual material in a critically aware and productive manner. The words they employ to describe the adequacy or inadequacy of the use and consumption of this material is “cognitive (in)competence,” a phrase they have adopted, along with their developed sense of irony, from Terry Atkinson, their teacher at Leeds. Ramsay Bird’s wry comments on the market acknowledge their own desire for a position within it. Each of the fish pictures bears the text “everything is under control” with the accreditation “ramsay biod.” The chillingly avuncular words of comfort are supported by the pretty fish and the understood (biod)egradable. This misspelling not only puts a question mark over the whole endeavor, but also leads us to infer that Ramsay Bird keep a close eye on what happens in “Noo Yoik.”

Six sculptures show the devastation that occurred when “Simplex Plastix,” a place, planet, or state of affairs, was destroyed by an “inconceivable nuclear attack.” Was it inconceivable because it never happened, because no one thought it would happen, or because when it did happen it was like nothing that had ever happened before? The multicolored globs of melted plastic, marked a through f, don’t make it any clearer, being both fictions and models of reality. They have nonsensical or neologistic titles like Practical Polemics for Space Surfers, or Hetmogeneity. The elision of hetero/homo suggests what this latter title might refer to, but meaning is a labile commodity here.

Michael Archer