Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
There is not praise enough for this superb, unusual and highly original exhibition which is currently being held at the British Museum in London. Combining works from the British Museum’s collection of ancient and historical importance, with the hyper-contemporary artistic musings of infamous cross-dressing artist, Grayson Perry, the British Museum has put on a show which departs radically from its mainstay shows of ancient China, ancient Lebanon, ancient Iran and so on. This utterly inventive exhibition is not only a refreshing change for the British Museum, but also for British contemporary art. For through Grayson Perry we have an artist who does not speak his mind for the sake of being controversial, but who, as a philosopher of our times, makes objective, shrewd and rational observations about the madness of today’s society. And he does so not in a way that is patronising or judgmental, but through works which are accessible, original and imbued with a sophisticated yet unpretentious sense of humour. And thus, amidst the requisite hushed silence of a London gallery, giggles, chuckles and sometimes outright guffaws broke through the air as the attendees of the exhibition relished in the exquisitely imaginative creations of Perry’s show.
So what is the exhibition all about? Well, it basically gives Grayson Perry free reign to indulge in the unhindered realms of his imagination. Perry’s show thus takes the audience on a “pilgrimage” into his imaginary world, a world which revolves around his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, as the central protagonist. As the “god” of this imagined reality, the little teddy bear is expressed in a variety of religious personae, from temple keeper to the enshrined teddy as Perry explores themes connected with notions of craftsmanship in faith and sacred journeys – from shamanism, magic and holy relics to motorbikes, identity and contemporary culture. In fact, Perry and his teddy went on their own pilgrimage as a precursor to the exhibition, taking a trip on a wonderful decorated motorbike, complete with it’s own attached temple for Teddy, to Germany, the country which, in Perry’s youthful fantasies, Alan Measles had been at war with, the brave warrior in his turbulent childhood imagination. As the pilgrimage is transposed from physical journey to metaphorical odyssey through the carefully curated exhibition, we are taken through a winding gallery space, fit to bursting with a tempting display of rich glossy potteries and gems of the British Museum collection, extravagant Perry designed tapestries and plentiful shrines to Alan Measles. At its completion, the pilgrim trail concludes at the foot of a richly decorated cast-iron ship, a memorial to all the anonymous individuals that over the centuries have fashioned the handmade wonders of the world.
It all sounds a bit abstract, a bit too removed from reality, but despite this being the product of a very eccentric artist’s vision, it seems to work on a number of levels. First, Perry’s works, such as his ceramic, The Frivolous Now, are utterly bang-up-to date contemporary, and make witty social observations to which we can all relate. The work may appear like an old vase befitting the British Museum’s collection, but on closer inspection, Perry has littered it with catchphrases of the current popular press. Thus we see a mythological hybrid containing the twin heads of David Cameron and Nick Clegg and catch phrases including: mental illness, cyber bulling, wikileaks, App, botox and headscarf ban. Similarly in Head of a Fallen Giant, Perry evaluates the concept of “Englishness” and the struggle we have in defining it, depicting England as a skull like a washed up war mine, decaying, Perry says, “like a maritime superpower…encrusted with the boiled down essence of empire in the form of tourist tat”. Accordingly, the scull is covered with tourist emblems of London buses, big bens and red pillar post boxes, a Union Jack and a shriveled image of Elizabeth I.
The second reason this show works is because of the pivotal role of Alan Measles, the teddy bear. While those of the audience having the pretentious reserve of an archetypal sophisticated gallery-goer may attempt to dismiss the teddy bear as childplay and immaturity in a man who has clear issues left over from his childhood, the simple fact is, we can all identify with the softer imaginings of our childhoods, and for many of us, even in the midst of our adult professional life, a soft fluffy teddy or a favourite old toy may still represent a significant nostalgic component of our everyday lives, the likes of which we would be ashamed to admit in the boardroom. Good on Grayson Perry for indulging in the lighter side of life, for stripping away the pretention that is rife in the art world while still managing to put on a show which is full of sensible and insightful comments and observations. For example, the phrase which really struck a chord with me was what Alan Measles, as a “guru of doubt”, advised all the representatives of other religions: “Hold your beliefs lightly”. If only we could all follow such advice, there could be no doubt that our world would be a far more peaceful place.
The Grayson Perry show is on at the British Museum until 19 February 2012. Hurry there while you still can.