EXHIBITION REVIEW: GRAYSON PERRY – THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN CRAFTSMAN
GRAYSON PERRY – THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN CRAFTSMAN
Grayson Perry and The British Museum are two institutions that one would not normally expect to join forces to create a new exhibition. But come together they have and in quite remarkable style to create a new exhibition that is nothing short of a wonder, of artifacts new and old.
Perhaps Perry is known by many for his lavish pots, lavish dresses and lavish winning the Turner prize in 2003 and from conversations I have had in the past, seems to divide opinion as to whether his work is brilliant or over the top and hideous. Personally, I am a fan of his work and think the contemporary reflections of life and society that adorn his pots are both visually stunning as well as politically poignant. Like many and possible quite naively, I only really became aware of him through the Turner prize but have enjoyed his output ever since.
So when I heard that he was curating a new show at the British Museum displaying new works alongside items picked out of the museum’s collection, it sounded like a show that should not be missed.
The concept is a simple one, Perry created works and selected some from his back catalogue and then scoured the museum for items that in some way appeared connected to his own output. As you progress through the exhibition it becomes apparent that the museum (and no doubt others like the V&A) have always been an integral part of his work and a source of inspiration and reference in his own art. No doubt any artist of note could go through a similar process to find old arts, craft and artifacts that appear to relate or sync with their own work, but at times the similarity between the artifacts chosen and Perry’s work is startling.
This is a real strength of the whole exhibition and concept, because I believe it makes an interesting point about the evolution of creativity and our visual history. Effectively, what Grayson Perry has done is to reverse engineer his own works of art. Like any artist, or any person for that matter, he has been partially shaped, moulded and influenced by all that has come before him. Like all of us, he would have been bombarded with these references throughout his life – whether intentionally through repeated visits to museums and galleries, or subconsciously through media, marketing and our everyday exposure to all things visual.
Given this fact, is it any wonder that references in his own work are found riddled throughout ancient artifacts? I think not and believe the show is a fantastic way of paying homage to all those who have come before him and will no doubt come after. I have used the analogy before that in Science, someone investigating a new problem does not conduct every experiment needed to prove their theory. They take it as read that for hundreds of years scientists have worked on and proved a great many things. They start from this point of already existing knowledge and take it to the next level or develop it to work within a modern context, for example they don’t have to first re-discover the boiling point of water each time they use it. This is the same for art – we all take the experiments those have come before us as a starting point and, whether aware of it or not, we move on from that point. When I take a photograph of an industrial structure, I may not be thinking of the Beecher’s whilst doing so – but I am certainly aware of their work and therefore it has had some influence on my stance and approach to that subject matter.
Throughout the exhibition, Perry commentates on the items that he choose from the museum’s collection, talking about why he is interested in them, how they relate to his life and modern society and of course the visual stimulus that lie therein. You also get the impression that this is a show Grayson Perry has been waiting to do for years, perhaps even his whole life. It is rare and quite unique that all content is directly chosen by the artist themselves and this extends beyond the exhibition to the essays written by Perry himself in the accompanying catalogue.
An artist that lives and breathes the Post Modern you would have to travel some distance to find and Grayson Perry joins alongside artists such as Tracey Emmin or Gilbert & George who very much explore and include their own life within their art works. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is centered around Perry’s childhood friend and teddy bear Alan Measles. Alan Measles seems to have been an alter ego, father figure, hero and friend that filled his childhood and provided the catalyst for numerous adventures and explorations.
Measles was an explorer, emperor, warrior, professor and a thousand things more and in this show enjoys a second coming where he gets to explore the history of the world and be cast into a myriad of new roles that sit alongside contemporary culture. As the title of the show suggests, there is a respect and acknowledgement here to the unknown and unnamed craftspeople whose work, millions of people appreciate each year. So in Perry’s exhibition, Alan Measles becomes a face for all of these artists both alive and dead.
The concept of the omni-present teddy sits well with me as I too spent large chunks of my childhood immersed in a fantasy land ruled by soft toys that became ever more elaborate and complicated as years passed. Perhaps it is easier to dissect and place understanding on the world when it can be reinterpreted and reenacted through something as simple and innocent as a childhood toy. So I think Alan Measles probably has something to say to all of us and we can all relate to the multi-fasceted hero character that he has become. Almost like a reflection on the possibilities in modern culture itself through advanced computer games, celebrity culture and mass media, Alan Measles is no longer confined to the imagination of one child but can become the realised product of his dreams.
There are numerous of Perry’s own works on display throughout the exhibition and this is the first time I had come fact to face with any of them in the flesh. Whilst I had always been drawn to the colour and stylistic charactertures in his work when looking at it in pictures, I was not prepared for how beautiful they would be in real life. Perhaps beautiful seems an inappropriate word for what some would call garish pots, but seeing them close up, the skill and intricacy involved in their creation becomes apparent.
The exhibition firmly breaks him away from just being a ceramicist as it contains tapestry, sculpture, drawings and even a motorbike. All have the same Perry style and present a similar set of messages about the world and how it is viewed by modern man and all are equally skilled. His mammoth tapestry is a wonder to be in front of and his drawing, which depicts him and Measles making a pilgrimage to the tomb is simple but striking. So much so that I even bought the tea towel…and that really is a first!
What also becomes apparent is that Grayson Perry is clearly an artist coming from the roots of a craftsman first and foremost. So many of the objects he chooses to share from the museum demonstrate high levels of craft, and so in his own work, this skill and fine working is at the forefront.
In a poetic way, his dedication to this exhibition pays a humble homage to the these craftsman and makes specific reference to the fact we have no idea who many of them are. The tomb of the unknown craftsman the British Museum truly is. Read almost any caption in any exhibit and you will rarely notice the name of a creator, the history of the person who made it and certainly not an image of them. We might no the rough period something was made and where and for what purpose – but whose hand helped to shape such objects remains a mystery.
It is easy to overlook this fact when going round a museum and perhaps too the same is applicable for art in a modern gallery setting. Like his work or loathe it, there is no dispute that Grayson Perry is firmly placing the art back into the heart of artisan.
Grayson Perry’s ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ is running until 19th February 2012 and I strongly urge anyone and everyone to go and see it. Not only rewarding visually (whether you are a Perry fan or not), for me, this is surely set to become an iconic and influential exhibition that will be referenced for years to come. Go, seek and be inspired.
More information about the show can be found at: www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/grayson_perry