NORTHWARD HO!

Benjamin Robinson

Benjamin Robinson is a writer and visual artist.

Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon. Émile Durkheim (Suicide, 1897)
If I commit suicide, it will not be to destroy myself but to put myself back together again. Suicide will be for me only one means of violently reconquering myself, of brutally invading my being, of anticipating the unpredictable approaches of God. By suicide, I reintroduce my design in nature, I shall for the first time give things the shape of my will. Antonin Artaud (‘On Suicide’, no. 1, Le Disque Vert, 1925)
The man who does away with himself, performs the most estimable of deeds: he almost deserves to live after having done so. Friedrich Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols, 1889)
On 23rd December 2011 the artist Roger Beaten was found hanging from a rafter in the attic of his Dublin home. He was forty-eight years old. Two months earlier I had interviewed Beaten about an ambitious new installation project, which he has just completed, called Loftworks. What follows was written before his untimely death and is presented unaltered as a tribute to his life and work.
NORTHWARD HO!: ROGER BEATEN’S LOFTWORKS
For an artist for whom weathering the last recession was a rite of passage, Roger Beaten says he is thoroughly enjoying the downturn. Never the recipient of State funding, the forty-eight-year-old artist is “unfazed by fiscal austerity.” Like many of his generation, Beaten steeled himself early in his career against success. Still without gallery representation, he prefers to keep his work in his loft rather than sell it to “unscrupulous hedge-fund managers” and “corrupt multinational corporations.”
Beaten says he was lucky enough never to have been part of a lost generation of artists who collaborated with the system. “Those who didn’t hoover up the cash hoovered up the grants and bursaries, their work judged not on its artistic merit but on the degree to which it conformed to prevailing orthodoxies.” For both groups it was all about “building an image, enhancing your profile and showing what a good, solid investment you were.”
Out of various artworks, which Beaten produced between 1995 and 2007, he has created an installation called Loftworks. As we enter a prolonged period of austerity the loft of his north Dublin home, which will house the installation, will be opened to the general public. Beaten hopes that Loftworks, which he describes as an examination of our “descent into cultural and spiritual penury,” will act as a catalyst for his fellow artists to embrace less financially rewarding forms of creative production. 
“I hope it will help us come to terms with what’s happened,” he says, adding that although viewing of the installation will be free, due to health and safety concerns it will be by appointment only. “They wanted everyone to wear a hard hat, can you imagine? They said that anyone who went up the ladder would have to sign something saying they were doing it at their own risk. So it’s by appointment only.” 
Beaten is anxious to stress that the individual pieces in Loftworks - none of which has been exhibited before - will not be for sale. “But I hope it won’t become some sort of a shrine,” he says, frowning benignly, “like a secular moving statue.” When I ask him about the prophetic nature of the work, he says it was unavoidable given his circumstances. “All I did was soak it up, what lay behind the dream - the dross beneath the gloss.” 
Loftworks will be accessed by a stepladder that belonged to Beaten’s late father, a Belfast-born Baptist minister who worked as an evangelist in the Irish Republic for twenty-five years. When Beaten was in his teens his father, following an internal power struggle, was excommunicated from the Baptist church he founded in Dublin in 1972. The communiqué informing him of his excommunication cited “an irrevocable breakdown of trust” and “continued lack of remorse.” Beaten sees in his father’s intransigence a parallel with the current crisis. “He’d nowhere to go after that. He couldn’t go back to the north and he didn’t want to stay in the south. His Alzheimer’s [Beaten’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years after the excommunication] was like a long, drawn-out implosion.” 
Sitting on the mantelpiece beside us is a photograph, which will be used on the publicity material for Loftworks. It is called Northward Ho! and it pictures the opening into the loft in which the installation is situated. Beaten’s eyes return frequently to the image, drawing strength from its vertiginous astringency.
 Roger Beaten: Northward Ho!, 2011; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Northward Ho!, 2011; courtesy the artist

After a cup of tea and a biscuit, we head upstairs to view the work. The house is sparsely decorated and there’s little evidence that Beaten is in any way connected with the visual arts. 
Loftworks comprises ten individual artworks, laid out in a cruciform on the loft beams. When he took them out of storage, Beaten says he was surprised at how fresh they looked. “They struck a cord, immediately - it’d been over fifteen years since I’d seen some of them. I felt the gloom lift, that sense of dread hanging over us all, and knew I had to do something with them. I’d expected them to maybe look, you know, a bit dated, a bit passé, but a spell in the dark had sharpened them up considerably.”
Beaten goes up first to check “nothing’s fallen over” or “been eaten by mice.” Pausing on the penultimate step, he looks down and says, “But then the reality of something is always different to how we remember it, isn’t it?” 
He tugs the string and a warm glow washes over his torso. As he clears his throat – a habit he inherited from his father – a harsh rasp, tinged with northern reticence, echoes overhead. 
After switching off the light, he climbs slowly back down the ladder. 
“Steady as she goes,” he says, gripping the rail and gesturing for me to go up.
I’m a bit shaky as I make my ascent. The last step, on which one stands to view the installation, is covered - like a miniature Jackson Pollock painting - in paint splatters, remnants of when Beaten earned his living as a house painter. Before I step up into the loft I picture the fervour, the panic of the boom, how nobody wanted to be left out. 
Pushing through the black square I feel as if I am being swallowed by a Kazimir Malevich painting.
I tug the string but nothing happens.
“You have to give it a good yank,” Beaten shouts.
I try again and the loft lights up. 
The cruciform is, so to speak, life-size, with the pieces, balanced on the beams, surrounded by troughs of dusty insulation. 
After I have viewed the work we go back downstairs, to talk about the individual pieces. 
 Roger Beaten: Sunset on the Emerald Isle, 2007, courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Sunset on the Emerald Isle, 2007, courtesy the artist

The piece that occupies the cruciform’s crux is called Sunset on the Emerald Isle (2007). It consists of a black Styrofoam apple carton divided into three ‘zones’. In the middle zone there is a collage of a half- closed eye, covered in gold mascara. Around its edges the underlying white primer provides a tentative border. The eyelid doubles as a seascape with a setting sun reflected on water. Cognisant of the green night-vision zone to its left, the downward and inward gaze echoes our ‘turning a blind eye’ to the 2007 US troop surges through Shannon Airport during the Iraq war. The ‘dead zone’ on the far left, as you view the piece, has been left untouched; the mounded black Styrofoam, which resembles a mask turned on its side, vies with the other zones for supremacy. This is Beaten’s boom-time flag, and his attempt to encapsulate the divisions and opposing traditions into which he was born, and within which he was raised.
When I ask him about the connotations of using the cruciform, he shrugs and says, “Sure doesn’t everyone have a crucifix in the attic.” 
Strategically located midway down the central spine (directly below Sunset on the Emerald Isle) is the skeletally phallic The Bungled and the Botched (1995). In an upturned lampshade frame a torn photograph of Beaten’s head, eyes covered by an image of brickwork, hangs from a silicone teat. Reminiscent of the arbitrary justice of totalitarian regimes, a metal key ring acts as a surrogate head beneath which a limbless torso hangs like a piece of butchered meat. By occupying the pelvic zone, the frame’s scaffold gives the cruciform its sacrilegious dimension. Redolent of the Cerne Abbas Giant’s chalk outline, its role as fertility symbol emerges from beneath the Christian iconography. In conjunction with the hanging torso and the title’s Nietzschean denigration, the work speaks of sustenance and virility in terms of summary execution and an inversion of illumination. Rather that providing us with a purely rational critique of financial speculation, Beaten has chosen instead to turn inward and commune with the insatiable desire that “steered us into the ditch.”
 Roger Beaten: The Bungled and the Botched, 1995; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: The Bungled and the Botched, 1995; courtesy the artist

Although Beaten downplays the influence of the Northern Ireland conflict on his work, it lingers in his gestures and speech; his hesitating before saying the word ‘boom’, followed by a slow guttural detonation, as if something were expiring in an exhausted sigh. 
At the height of the boom he and his wife, the poet Brónach Ní Beannacht, separated after twenty-five years of marriage. It was an event that left the struggling artist traumatised. “You have to go through it to understand. How you’re hollowed out by it, how you’d do anything to turn back the clock. And you end up fighting over the silliest things, cutlery, houseplants, who gets the novelty teapot. You start out telling yourself you’ll be reasonable but end up pulling photos out of albums and tearing them to shreds.” 
In the piece located at the southerly end of the cruciform, Broken Vows (2006), Beaten enshrines the sense of dislocation he felt following the break-up. The container in which the reassembled fragments are presented “splits open like the fruit of the dead [the pomegranate], to reveal its chambers of ruptured seeds.” Over the course of our conversation the question of atonement, of the price of reparation, is a recurring theme. As Beaten explains: “If the individual pieces in Loftworks represent a secular or pagan Stations of the Cross, the work in its totality can be seen, on one level, as a desire to exorcise through ritualised sacrifice our collective guilt.”
 Roger Beaten: Broken Vows, 2006; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Broken Vows, 2006; courtesy the artist

The orientation of Beaten’s house is such that the cardinal points of the cruciform are aligned with the head facing north and the feet south, with the arms stretched out east and west. At its most northerly point, Balcombe Street Blues (1999) consists of a dessicated rose, sitting on a photocopy of a palm or wrist, enclosed in a transparent plastic dome. The rose is made from orange peel, and there is an aperture - like a bullet hole or puncture wound - at its core. To the right of the rose, outside the plastic dome, there is an identity-label key fob in which an image of drumming or marching fingers has been placed. 
The identity-label key fob is central to Loftworks interrogation of the property bubble’s role in the skewering of cultural identity. As with all the pieces in Loftworks, it is impossible to extricate Beaten’s troubled private life from his political preoccupations. As we discuss Balcombe Street Blues I notice him drumming his fingers on the armrest of his chair. He checks his wristwatch repeatedly, before launching into a eulogy of the Great Depression. It’s hard not to see him as a lost soul, the prodigal son marking time before the emaciated remains of his divided loyalties. 
The title Balcombe Street Blues is an oblique reference to the Balcombe Street Siege of 1975 in which four members of the Provisional IRA held two hostages captive for six days. Beaten recalls watching it - he was eleven at the time - on television with his father. The siege ended with the IRA volunteers surrendering and the hostages being released. Beaten is quick to point out that the work is not so much a comment on the incident - although with its excoriated romanticism, Balcombe Street Blues reflects some of the contradictions inherent in such acts of appropriation - as a reflection on our willingness, as individuals, to sacrifice others for the sake of a cause, to destroy the collective in the name of an inflated ideal. 
“It’s the tragedy of the commons writ large - all those ghost estates and half-finished buildings. It’s Nietzsche’s ruthlessness refracted through a prism of cheap credit, screeching overhead in a rainbow of iPods and plasma screens that’s got us where we are today, sitting on a crock of debt. To see communities hollowed out by greed, to see them riddled with anxiety, everyone trapped in their own little bubble of despair, waiting for the axe to fall. But we’ve convinced ourselves we’ll escape. We’ve been cajoled into believing the siege will end, that things will get back to normal and everything will be hunky-dory.” 
 Roger Beaten: Balcombe Street Blues, 1999; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Balcombe Street Blues, 1999; courtesy the artist

Situated at what Beaten refers to as “liturgical east” (the furthest point west), Reclining Nude (2004) elicits a mischievous smile when I mention it. As with Sunset on the Emerald Isle the starting point was a moulded black container. Beaten cannot recollect what it was the container originally contained but suspects “cherry tomatoes.” On its right-hand side, the base’s recessed ribbing is filled for about two thirds of its length with a photograph of a woman’s shoulder and forearm - the reclining nude of the title. Over the remaining third of the container, where the breasts would be, Beaten has painted an image of interlacing, overlapping petals. In contrast to its photographic counterpart the petals are expansively, erotically tactile, completing the elements of a “reproductive ménage à trois.” Positioning the photographic element behind bars suggests that Beaten sees the camera as incarcerating its subject in a restrictive verisimilitude, in contrast to the fulsome liberality of the painted image. 
“Any critique of consumerism must deal with its appeal, through a sublimated eroticism, to our desire to return to the utopian safety of the womb. In Reclining Nude that return is thwarted by the image of the female genitalia, which overflow their confinement and containment. Where the obscenity of photographic technology resides in its ability to make reality recede perpetually from us, to render it unattainable, its sinister aspect consists of its ability to make us see our collusion with that incarceration as the fulfilment of our deepest needs. Whereas nature, as perpetual inculcation, depicted in the liberté, égalité and fraternité of the interlacing petals - and afforded the same rights as the other two elements - recognises no such constraints. It is the job of the artist to facilitate such painful renditions, to make visible the conflict between the neoliberal extension of Manet’s Olympia – that we are all self-motivated prostitutes, happily pimping ourselves - and the hollowed-out rhetoric of its consumerist propaganda as played out in Reclining Nude’s emblematic locations and dislocations: a container that doesn’t contain anything, a nude that isn’t nude, a fig leaf in need of a fig leaf.”
 Roger Beaten: Reclining Nude, 2004; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Reclining Nude, 2004; courtesy the artist

If it was the compassionate benevolence of the Graces that sustained Beaten through the boom - and Loftworks contains its fair share of Splendour, Mirth, and Good Cheer - it is through their opposites, degradation, desolation, and a melancholy black humour, that they most often manifest. “The classical poise of the Graces reflects the three aspects of the gift: giving, accepting, and returning, virtues that, within the twisted logic of neoliberal expansionism, with its unholy trinity of cheap credit, over-consumption, and debt commodification, underwrote the boom.”
Three empty apple trays expound the links  between transgression and reparation in Three Graces (2005), the shells of which stretch out along the eastern limb as if reaching for some elusive shore. The triptych eschews plastic and Styrofoam for the buckled curves of mounded paper. Beaten is in buoyant mood as we discuss the triptych with its sheela-na-gig-like displays of impasto florescence.
“For the northern protestant in me, Loftworks is a seditious underworld. But it’s also a supplication, a prayer to Demeter, goddess of the harvest, of the sanctity of marriage, the sacred law, the cycle of life and death. Its purpose - if it has one - is to conjure visions of a life beyond the evergreen fields of material aspiration. Only through art can we negotiate out way out of the underworld, regain our balance, and be reunited with mother earth.” It is in this regard, Beaten says, that Loftworks represents a “purgatorial cornucopia,” an offering of the first fruits of his late harvest in atonement for the sins of our hubristic elites.
 Roger Beaten: Three Graces, 2005; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Three Graces, 2005; courtesy the artist

In a marriage he characterises as “a minefield of conflicting religious, political and artistic ethnicities,” Beaten says Brónach and he were forced early on in their relationship to confront their demons. Lying uneasily beneath Balcombe Street Blues thorny orange crown, Twin Track Approach (1996) testifies to the destructive power of such subterranean ordinance. Beaten puts the work in its historical context:
“It was the mid ’90s, the start of the bubble. Brónach was threatening to leave if I didn’t give up drinking, hence the fossilised stalk. I was prepared to admit sobriety as an aspiration but achievable only with consent. I was sleeping in the spare room at the time and I remember there was all this talk in the north about a twin-track approach, as a solution to the no-talks-without-decommissioning, no-decommissioning-without-talks logjam. So I put an image of a trigger finger opposite the stalk to say, OK, I’ll give up drinking if you give up your threats. Give up flying off the handle. Give up shooting your mouth off. Of course she took me up wrong, said I was implying she was a fellow traveller. That she supported the armed struggle. But a community has a right to defend itself, she said. People have a right to resist. Murder is murder, I said. Anyway, Twin Track Approach was a recipe for peace that recognised the intransigence and sterility of the situation, the artificiality and sense of polarisation that underpinned our respective positions. Like Loftworks, it was about laying the foundations of a fresh start. Scraping the bottom of the barrel so we could start anew.”
 Roger Beaten: Twin Track Approach, 1996; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Twin Track Approach, 1996; courtesy the artist

Between Balcombe Street Blue and Broken Vows sits a small bundle of navy-blue fabric tied up with white gauze. The piece is called Surplus to Requirements (2004) and it was made shortly after Beaten’s father died. The fabric is the cut-off ends of the trousers Beaten wore to the funeral. 
“He slipped away between the stillness of Christmas and the frenzy of the January sales. It was the winter of 2003. He’d had Alzheimer’s for about three years. I was searching through the sales, trying to find something to wear. Eventually I found a suit in Boyer’s bargain basement - they sold cheap seconds at the time. The trousers were too long so I turned them up the night before the funeral. We hadn’t had a great relationship and the cut-off ends were like all that was left between us, an unwanted residue, an unusable surplus. We didn’t fit as father and son. I think that’s why he left the north, because he didn’t fit in. I used the gauze to tie up the loose ends because it’s used typically to dress wounds. I suppose I was trying to say something about how when you lose the possibility of redemption you lose everything. When you bury that you bury your soul.”
 Roger Beaten: Surplus to Requirements, 2004; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Surplus to Requirements, 2004; courtesy the artist

Located in the middle of the eastern arm, The Auld Orange Flute (2001) consists of a Perspex box into which three pieces of white tubing have been fitted, and in front of which a cut-out image of fingers has been placed. The fingers are life-sized and appear to be gripping, holding back, or shielding us from the tubing. In an anguished flare they emerge through the wringer of Beaten’s sculptural decommission to sound their ambivalent dissent. 
Attired in a dress made out of Union Jacks, Beaten’s grandmother famously led one of Belfast’s annual 12th of July parades. Facts such as this, along with his dislocated upbringing and his father’s evangelical zeal, contributed, Beaten says, to the mangling of his identity. As he tells me this a sense of desperation creeps into his voice - as if he himself were being squeezed through the wringer of memory - which he dispels with a potted history of the flute.
 Roger Beaten: The Auld Orange Flute, 2001, courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: The Auld Orange Flute, 2001, courtesy the artist

“It’s very ancient, of course, Neolithic flutes were found in China, carved out of the wing bones of red-crowned cranes. Before that, about thirty-five thousand years ago, a five-hole flute was found in a cave in Germany made out of a vulture’s wing bone. Others were found made out of mammoth tusks and swan bones. The Chinese ones are the earliest examples of functioning musical instruments ever found. In the song the flute rebels against its owner because he’s married a Catholic and ‘turned Papist’. It refuses to play anything but protestant songs. I suppose to some extent it was me during the boom, refusing to genuflect before the altar of personal gain. Not having turned Papist, I played the role of flute rather than fluter. Anyway, the flute gets branded a heretic and is burned at the stake. But it refuses to go quietly. As the flames soar around it, it whistles The Protestant Boys.”
As a precursor of its more easterly neighbour, the restrictive methodologies ratified in The Auld Orange Flute were, Beaten says, directly responsible for Plantation’s (2002) muted efflorescence. 
“It was a reaction against the bursaries and residencies, the glossy catalogues and dizzying price tags. You become a different person surrounded by all that, you can’t help it. Whether you like it or not failure takes its toll. And you spend your time immobilising roadblocks, neutralising watchtowers, breaking down borders within yourself. When I went up north, as a child, I was from an alien country - an hour and three quarter’s drive away, yet utterly foreign. I was from somewhere infernal, a place apart. That distorted sense of identity begins to define you. It eats into your soul. You resist, of course, do your bit for the cause, whatever that is. But it also has its benefits, the sneaking regard with which the south was observed. The fecklessness and tardiness, the absolution on tap. The industrial quantities of the devil’s buttermilk we were all supposed to be drinking. How did they think we ever managed to orchestrate an armed struggle, Brónach used to say, pissed out of our brains all the time. For my grandmother the south was always The Free State, a failed entity run by priests and nuns. She stood to attention for God Save the Queen. She shook her fist at Gerry Adams whenever he came on the television. You were either good or bad, in her mind, either right or wrong.” 
In a gravedigger’s rasp, Beaten bursts into song: “And try though he would, though it made a great noise, the flute would play only The Protestant Boys.”
Beyond the pallid cuff of The Auld Orange Flute, Plantation extends on the cruciform’s eastern extremity its cinereal palm. From the sides of a small cigar box, the inner base of which has been covered with a photocopy of the underside of Beaten’s hand, the protective sheets of paper that fold over the cigars have been adorned with a linocut of a forest of saplings. The distinction between creator and created, coloniser and colonised, scutiform palm and image cache, is confounded by the palm’s having been created by the same downward pressure - or “pressure from the north” as Beaten puts it, lowering his extended hand - with which the image of the saplings was created. 
 Roger Beaten: Plantation, 2002; courtesy the artist
Roger Beaten: Plantation, 2002; courtesy the artist

In contrast to the western arm’s triple-locked benevolence, the eastern arm is suffused with pangs of extrication. From the combative Reclining Nude to The Auld Orange Flute’s dark night of the wringer, Plantation forces through the ravenous fog its ragged grey shoots. Fingers displayed so graphically in the mid-phase are, when we reach the eastern extremities, conspicuous by their absence. It is in this amputated space, a space of loss and cultural degradation, that Loftworks stakes it claim.
While welcoming speculation as to the installation’s overall meaning, Beaten remains sceptical of definitive interpretations, insisting there’s “no coming full circle.” “Interpretation,” he says, “must remain ancillary to lived experience. Everyone must go up the ladder and see.”
“Did you know there was a cigar boom in Ireland from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s? I was given a box of them one Christmas. We were all triumphalist back them, forever celebrating some newfound aspect of ourselves. Because he didn’t know he was dying, my father didn’t get to say anything meaningful before he died. He just clung to the rail at the side of his bed. Someone - I think it was my sister - said, because he hadn’t done that before, hadn’t clung to the rail like that, “This is something new, isn’t it? This is something different.” But it wasn’t something new, and it wasn’t something different. He was just clinging to the side of the bed, that’s all, just clinging to the wreckage. And that’s what we’re doing right now - clinging to the old mantras, the old dogmas, the old paradigms - whistling an imminent recovery.”