Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Review on Grayson Perry- The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (6th October 2011- 15th February 2012)

Grayson Perry ceramic vase,You Are Here, 2011 (Detail)
‘This is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsmen that over the centuries have fashioned the manmade wonders of the world…The craftsman’s anonymity I find especially resonant in an age of the celebrity artist.’ 
Grayson Perry

The British Museum’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is Grayson Perry’s most ambitious project to date, a major installation of his own work and museum objects by unknown craft makers.

Grayson Perry is an anomaly, respected (debatably) in both the contemporary art and craft world, circles which are always in dispute with one another. Perry’s pots came to fame for depicting controversial scenes of graphic violence and child abuse; making powerful satirical statements on history and contemporary society. But to the wider public he will always be better known for his flamboyant alter ego Claire, who he dressed up as and immortalised on his 2003 Turner win. With his celebrity ‘mad potter’ status and reputation for ‘winding up people with pots’, his exhibition at the British Museum was bound to kick up a fuss. It is highly unorthodox for a museum known for its ancient artefacts (made mostly by the deceased) to feature the work of a living modern artist, let alone grant the reins to curate an entire exhibition. The show was highly anticipated for months prior to its opening, reiterated by video interviews and no less than two BBC TV specials.

The exhibition can best be summed up as a journey through a fantasy civilisation- with Alan Measles, his much loved childhood teddy bear as the benign dictator, war hero, shaman and pope. Every aspect has been designed and curated to feel like a religious pilgrimage, illustrated by around 26 of Perry’s work (ceramics, tapestries, drawings cast iron amongst others) plus 190 objects he selected from the museum’s collection. These are divided into themes such as Magick, Shrines, Sex, Death, and Craftsmanship. The former four ideas appear fitting, given the grim, witty nature of Perry’s pieces. The latter is relevant if you consider the technical skill, fluency with diverse materials and labour that goes into them. There is, of course Perry’s much publicized outspokenness championing the merits of craft in the higher status world of modern art.
Grayson Perry on his customized Kenilworth AM1 and motorbike gear, 2011

Perry sees museums and galleries as churches of cultural pilgrimage, where pilgrims flock to see precious, holy objects (=modern art) of gods and saints (=modern artists). By placing his work and historical artefacts of inspiration directly beside each other, the connections become tangibly clear.  One is compelled to inquisitively look closer at the objects, as narrative conversations are brought to life.

The ceramicist’s pots are the highlights of the show. They are richly alluring visual tableaux- intricately decorated with sgraffito drawings, handwritten and stencilled texts, sprigged motifs, transfers and glossy glazes. To some modern art can be overly aloof and abstract, making one feel less intelligent than the artist. This is never the case here. Perry ties historical ideas with contemporary culture effectively, using recognisable imagery and text in a dark yet light-hearted fashion.  This provoking visual buffet keeps viewers guessing and entertained. The frivolous now is a classic example, a pot chronicling the media buzzwords of February 2011. From ‘Botox’, ‘Big Society’ to ‘Diabetes’, seeing the banalities of modern society right in front of you is an uneasy experience- forcing us to confront worrying concerns and superficial obsessions.  Pushing the psychological boundaries of comfort (having a psychotherapist wife must help) is something Perry achieves masterfully, allowing him to get away with pretty much any taboo.

Ion Tutuianu and  Gheorghe Prescura, 'Doctor' New Year celebration mask, 1993
Image: The Trustees of the British Museum

Although Alan Measles has taken centre stage as the Alpha male, Claire gleefully crops up to mark his feminine side. Shrine to Alan and Claire depicts the marriage between them, while a blacksmith forges over the anvil in the background. (Blacksmiths have been symbolic of 'anvil priests' who conducted ‘irregular marriages in Gretna Green). The union of the two addresses Perry’s belief that all social problems are a result between the imbalances of the sexes of our psyche. Maybe this is the reason why he chooses to cross-dress, though Claire is semi-retired these days. (On BBC’s Hardtalk he admitted having ‘integrated his inner transvestite into his personality’ as he’d gotten older)

The fluid states of gender are perhaps the most fascinating themes of the show; with ranging tributes to 18th French century cross dressing spy Chevalier D'Eon de Beaumont, to paraphernalia of modern day Japan transvestites. Amongst Perry’s creations is a white silk ‘High priestess cape’, beautifully embroidered with oriental birds perched on blossom branches. Look closer and you’re in for a shock-the ‘birds’ are in fact winged penises spewing juices from flower shaped lips. Perry justifies his choice of imagery and challenges any prudishness, by juxtaposing ancient artefacts with explicit sexual imagery, or shaped as phalluses.
An example of this the Sheela-na-gig, a small carved stone statue of a woman opening her vulva with her hands, dating back to 12th century Ireland.  This image may seem pornographic today, but sexual imagery and nudity was part of everyday life for our ancestors, used prominently on ancient Greek and Roman jewellery, amulets, paintings and furniture for example. Sheela-na-gigs weren’t sleazy sex toys to be kept hidden, but were venerated to ward off lust and evil spirits, found on public buildings, castles and churches.In this context sexual imagery seems harmless. It is as though Perry is trying to convince us that we are the ‘perverts’; contemporary society having regressed to a state of sexual conservatism.

At times Perry’s interpretations come across as over-laboured, contrived caricatures. Several of his ceramic and cast metal objects unabashedly simulate the original artefacts’ appearance, technique and materials. In small doses it is tolerable, even brilliant, but when they are this blatant and copious (like the show's supposed climax- a five foot wide cast iron ship coffin, complete with bottled blood, sweat and tear offerings, and a 250000 old flint), the theatricality makes it hard to take seriously. Not that this matters to Perry anyway.

Grayson Perry cast iron pilgrim,  'Our Mother', 2009
Image: Stephen White
Given the curatorial objectives, the notion of the anonymous, penniless but honourable craftsman sits uneasily with Perry’s work, since his name is undeniably the most lucrative draw of the exhibition and its shop merchandise. Nevertheless, a great exhibition is one that gets people thinking and talking- whether you like his art or not. Judging by the amount of press coverage, reviews and public interest it has gathered, as far as he and the British Museum are concerned, the show has been a remarkable success.  Upon first glance his work seems completely bonkers; Perry warns visitors not to ‘search too hard for meaning’ from the outset. However, it is precisely when you inspect his work closely, making your own links, grasping the underlying ideas that strangely make sense in Perry’s world, do you discover there is more to this ‘celebrity charlatan’ than he would like you to believe. 

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