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When Magnus Sigurdarson immerses himself in a wacky character for one of his ruminations on what he calls the "failure of chasing identity," the results can be downright hilarious.
Last October, the Icelandic artist traveled to London with Jamaican photographer Paul Stoppi to collaborate on a project called "Operation Beefeater: Of Man and His Nature," now on view at Wynwood's Pan American Art Projects.
The exhibit features more than a dozen large metallic c-prints capturing Sigurdarson's mad romp across ye olde city on the Thames. In them, he's gussied up as one of the yeoman warders responsible for protecting the crown jewels and guarding prisoners at the Tower of London. During the Tudors' reign, the guards were paid with rations of beef and mutton, hence their popular moniker.
"The whole thing for me was about disguise and anonymity," Stoppi says. "It also has to do with issues of the wealth behind the crown and the lingering effects of colonialism."
Dressed as a beefeater and carrying a pike, Sigurdarson rode the tube, walked along busy London streets, and ate in a restaurant while Stoppi documented the public's reaction to the understated performance.
At first, passersby barely cast a glance at the shaggy Icelander, who let his flaxen mane and beard grow out for six months before the weeklong jaunt amid the unsuspecting crowds. The real McCoys have become favorites among millions of tourists who stop to have pictures snapped with Britain's beefeaters, but few people took notice of Sigurdarson's shenanigans — until he began picking his nose.
Several pictures of the artist wearing stately attire and burying his finger knuckle-deep in his snout, his face creased profoundly in concentration, are on display at the gallery.
"It was weird. I lived in London for about five years," Stoppi mentions. "Back home in Jamaica, if you just wore loud-colored clothing, people would notice. In a big city like London, you can travel around in a strange getup and no one would cast a second glance at you. It's a city where one can totally disappear into anonymity, and that's as foreign to me as sunburn to an Eskimo."
Sigurdarson agrees. "The English have a tremendous respect for the royals. After a while, people started to warm up to me and some police even stopped to pat me on the shoulder. But it all came to a halt when I began picking my nose on the tube. One lady freaked out and yelled at me to stop. 'That's disgusting!' she screamed." Meanwhile, his co-conspirator egged him on. "Maggie, dig into that nose — deeper, deeper!" Stoppi shouted.
After nearly causing an international incident, the conceptual duo headed for a steak-and-ale joint on a busy Piccadilly street for some meaty sustenance.
"We were starving," Stoppi says. "We hadn't eaten in a day and a half and ended up in what turned out to be a bizarre performance in itself in this gaudy red steak house."
In a lush color photograph titled Beef Eating Beef, Sigurdarson saws through a steak that Stoppi says was as tough as shoe leather. The image looks like it could have been shot for a gin commercial, and a gaggle of spectators gawks at the costumed artist through the restaurant window.
Although they were in London during Halloween, not all of Sigurdarson and Stoppi's public interactions orbited around fun and games.
The artists were co-opting their character, which they refer to as "the Beef," as a symbol for the working classes and not of royalty, they explain.
"We tried to put the Beef in blue-collar settings as the protector of the people and not the crown," Stoppi says. "For us, the queen's contemporary store of wealth is the proletariat and not the monarchy and her royal trappings."
One of the pair's images shows the Beef on a phone, acting as protector of the people while they sleep. Another captures the red-and-gold-clad warder riding the subway as the self-imposed custodian of laborers commuting to and from work. In yet another, he grasps a menacing pike while directing traffic.
The duo's collaboration is seamless and gives spectators plenty to think about: How do we see our individual roles in the world? How easy is it to slip in and out of an assumed identity? And how are we expected to act in public?
The exhibit's only flaw is that the gallery doesn't give the artists ample space to flesh out their concept. Instead, the pictures are sandwiched among works that have nothing to do with Sigurdarson and Stoppi's project. It seems more like a fishing expedition for wallets.
In the rear of the space, Stoppi is represented by three photos: one of a braying mule, one of a scantily clad heavyset woman in a stainless-steel washtub careening down a turnpike, and one of a black teenager sporting a golden crown on his noggin. They exude a compelling, atmospheric quality and reflect a keen eye and craftsmanship.
But next to them are two large paintings by Francis Acea, who is not listed as part of the show, conveying the impression that gallery director Janda Wetherington slapped them on the wall in a last-ditch attempt to cover dead space.
Acea's canvases look like a tired retread of Robert Longo's Men in the Cities series from the 1980s that depict spastic business-suit-sporting Wall Street types frozen in midseizure.
In the project room, check out Sigurdarson's Contained Archipelago: Storms I, II, III, a nifty mixed-media installation that will transport you to the chilly climes of the Icelander's youth.
He has covered the floor with 800 pounds of salt and used tiny Styrofoam balls in three Plexiglas chambers powered by fans to create the sensation of a frosty tempest.
On a far wall hangs The Semen Island, a small painting of a deserted island with a solitary palm tree. Sigurdarson's sparse tropical image is starkly at odds with the swirling snow. Not unlike the artist who pines for the melancholy of the North and finds himself stranded far from home.