Friday, 25 May 2012

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

At the British Museum in January we purchased advance tickets for the Grayson Perry exhibition, not really knowing what to expect. While wandering around the museum, we came upon a pink and blue motorcycle with a sort of shrine on the back. The label indicated that the motorcycle was tripped out for Grayson Perry's trip to Germany and that the shrine was for his teddy bear, Alan Measles. While we found some of the details amusing, I was quite repelled by the idea of a grown man so dedicated to his teddy bear, and anticipated the exhibition with considerable trepidation.

The next day we appeared for the exhibition and very quickly I found myself totally fascinated by the stunning objects Perry had chosen from the British Museum collection and somewhat interested in many of the items he had crafted for it. And I was completely taken by the statement "Hold your beliefs lightly," which was repeated several times in the installation. Several of the texts accompanying the objects were thoughtful and enlightening. Wanting to remember these objects, and photography being prohibited, I purchased the exhibition catalogue.

A month later, thinking I would write something here about the exhibition, I opened the catalogue, but couldn't find many of the objects that had so fascinated me. The texts did not replicate the exhibition labels (they rarely do in catalogues), and even the Perry works were difficult to comprehend. For example, I had been amused by walking around the vase titled "Your Are Here," and discovering people's quoted reasons for coming to the exhibition - "I'm into beat stuff," "It's on my A level syllabus, my tutor told me to come," "I had a free ticket" - but the catalogue's two views could only remind me of the experience of amused discovery, not replicate it.

The catalogue emphasizes Perry's works and does not include all the British Museum objects. Of his works I recall especially his "Map of Truths and Beliefs," 2011, some of the ceramic jars, and the complex pilgrim figures of "Our Father," 2007 and "Our Mother," 2009. I tried to ignore the omnipresent bears, and "The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" itself was a letdown both in the exhibition and the catalogue, a lot about not much.

After we saw the exhibition I enthusiastically recommended it to a London art colleague; she expressed total lack of interest, saying "Grayson Perry is all about Grayson Perry." The catalogue bears her out, but the exhibition was more of a wunderkammer, its mostly anonymous objects unexpectedly beautiful, powerful, amazing and amusing.

Since Perry is a Turner Prize winner and certainly an eccentric personality, there are many websites that reproduce images of his work. For example, the Saatchi Gallery website illustrates some vases, one with the excellent comment, "People say, ‘why do you need to put sex, violence or politics or some kind of social commentary into my work?’ Without it, it would be pottery. I think that crude melding of those two parts is what makes my work.”

What enchanted me about the exhibition was the beauty and the power of the objects Perry chose from the British Museum's collection. I think some of them were the Haida argillite carvings, Japanese and Indian portable shrines, a Kongo Power Figure, a Russian pine and ivory model of a sled, the print of the Chevalier d'Eon (an 18th century cross-dresser), an etching of multiple methods of torture, and Chinese earthenware statuettes of women. Most of these were three-dimensional; they lose presence in two-dimensional photographs. Photographs also diminish the size differences, so photographs of tiny things sit next to those of huge things and both lose some of their wonder.

This was another example of how an artist can be the curator of a fascinating exhibition drawn from a museum collection; and it demonstrates again why I try not to look at catalogue photographs of objects after seeing a particularly stunning show.

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