Art Criticism

Grayson Perry
Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
British Museum

He is best known as the bloke who accepted the 2003 Turner Prize in a dress. Now Grayson Perry, potter, artist, writer and transvestite, with a singular line in Bo Peep dresses, has created an extraordinary show in the British Museum, a large scale “cabinet of curiosities.”

Grayson Perry Rosetta Vase 2011
Rosetta Vase, 2011

The first such “cabinets” were personal collections of, usually, wealthy individuals. Also known as Wunderkammer (“wonder cabinets”), they contained the weird and the wonderful: natural and man-made objects that provoked a sense of curiosity in the viewer. These cabinets reached a peak of popularity in the 17th century and were attempts—before formal systems of taxonomy—to create, if not scientific, then narrative structures of the world.

Perry first visited the British Museum as a 6-year-old boy with his mother, aunt and sister, soon after his father had left their Essex home. As had an old edition of Arthur Mee’s 1920s Children’s Encyclopaedia, its moldy pages peppered with Greek monasteries and medieval German cities, the visit acted as a catalyst in the formation of an imaginary world that would dominate his childhood and his life as a potter and artist. For two-and-a-half years, Perry was allowed to raid the vaults of the museum to handpick gems from the vast collection. The result is a dreamlike exhibition of his own work juxtaposed with museum exhibits — an idiosyncratic Wunderkammer.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is “a memorial to makers and builders, all those countless un-named skilled individuals who have made the beautiful man-made wonders of history. The Unknown Craftsman is an artist in the service of his religion, his master, his tribe, his traditions.” In Perry’s personal cosmology, the craftsman is also the mythical handyman, the absent father who fixed the house and dug the garden. In many ways, the whole exhibition is a meditation on nostalgia and loss.

“Do not look too hard for meaning,” a placard tells the visitor at the entrance. “I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.” Joseph Beuys, one of Perry’s heroes, saw himself as a shaman and was a great mythologizer of his own life. Perry also describes himself as a shaman, a trickster and a sorcerer who tells stories, dresses up and gives things meaning. Cross-dressing allows him to express both the masculine and feminine elements in his character.

Grayson Perry Frivalous Now 2011
Frivalous Now, 2011

On many levels this exhibition is a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage through the museum’s collection as well as through Perry’s psyche. His trip to Germany—accompanied by his boyhood teddy bear Alan Measles who, during childhood, became a projection of Perry’s idealized characteristics of maleness, acting as surrogate father, rebel leader and fighter pilot – was undertaken because “we wanted to make peace.” The “bad Nazis” had, during boyhood, been Perry’s default image for all negative experience. In his moth-eaten little jump suit, Alan Measles sits in his case near a Egyptian wood carving of the household god Bes. “If Alan Measles had been around in ancient Egypt,” says Perry, “he would have hung out with Bes.”

The exhibition is full of charms, talismans and shrines, objects imbued with spiritual or mystical power in much the same way as a contemporary art object. His Tomb Guardian, a glazed green-and-white ceramic from 2011, squats in its glass case near a tapestry doll from Peru (circa 900-1430). The puppet-doll, though it has seen better days, still stares bug-eyed at the viewer. Perry’s guardian also has bulging eyes, plus a downturned mouth, a rotund stomach and an enormous erect phallus, the tip of which becomes a grotesque horned face.

The Frivolous Now, 2011 is an example of how Perry weaves his concerns about contemporary life and issues into his work. At first glance his glazed ceramics have an archaic quality. But a closer look reveals that they are incised with graffiti, along with images related to child abuse, and cyber-bullying.

Perry has a great feel for the Jungian archetype and the symbol. The exhibition is a psychoanalytic journey, a modern day Pilgrim’s Progress full of demons, dreams and myths. This is the collective unconscious, which stretches back in time and forward to the present, where it is made visible. In the final room we come to the tomb itself—an iron Ship of Fools sailing into the afterlife. The ship is also a pun, a craft for the craftsman, decked with the fruits of his labor and laden with a cargo of blood, sweat and tears.

Grayson Perry Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is at The British Museum from 6 October 2011 to 8 January 2012


24 Feb/March 2012 artillery


Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
Images © Perry Grayson 2011

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