Art In Review – Grayson Perry at the British Museum

Grayson Perry, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
The British Museum

6.10.11 – 26.02.12

The Strand Gallery and Grayson Perry are old friends. In 2011 Perry was photographed by Martin Parr as part of Parr’s project What Would You Save in a Flood? and came to show his support on the opening night.


– Garyson Perry at The Strand Gallery with his photo by Martin Parr

This exhibition (The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman), curated by Perry himself, takes you on a magical tour through the British Museum’s unseen artefacts and Perry’s own bizarre and intriguing imagination. With Alan Measles; the artist’s favourite and very significant childhood teddy (photographed with Perry in Parr’s project), ‘the benign dictator’ of his imaginary world.

“When I was young I had an imaginary civilisation…now I am not sure where my imagination stops and the world begins.” – Grayson Perry

Before even entering the exhibition, you are greeted by a huge baby pink and blue custom-built motorbike (on which, sits a ‘stunt double’ of Alan Measles) which Perry drove to Germany with his teddy.

The first object you encounter after entering the exhibition is a large glazed ceramic vase entitled You Are Here (Grayson Perry, 2011). Around the vase are intricately drawn characters of everyday people with speech bubbles, ‘talking’ about the exhibition. One that caught my eye was the image of a young woman with the words ‘there was such a buzz about it on Twitter’ in her speech bubble.

The curation of the exhibition is impeccable. You are lead systematically on a journey, one theme at a time. Original artefacts are juxtaposed against Perry’s own modern replicas, created using traditional processes and using materials such as iron, ceramics, tapestry, wood and oil paint.

“I am constantly on the look-out for artefacts that somehow reflect but also enhance my visual language.” – Grayson Perry

“ Everything in the British Museum was contemporary once…I wanted it (the pot) to have the look of a mystical diagram whilst the content consisted of the banalities and buzzwords of February 2011.” – Grayson Perry The Frivolous Now, 2011.

Throughout the exhibition Perry reminds us of his, and indeed our, preoccupation with the digital age and the effect it has had on the way we view art. He writes “The multimedia collage of modern life makes it hard for an upcoming god to establish himself without a web presence.”

Perry explores a range of themes connected with notions of craftsmanship and sacred journeys such as shamanism, magic and holy relics, souvenirs, sexuality and gender and shrines. He believes that his role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or a witch doctor. He writes that ‘artists are the hermits, saints and holy fools of the church of contemporary art’ and thinks that as humans, the way we look at art ‘has developed from the way we look upon gods, alters and relics in shrines and sacred spaces’. By placing objects behind glass or barrier lines, we give meaning and significance to them and recognise their creators as artists. So what happens when the same is done with a Hello Kitty pilgrim hand-towel or a souvenir badge? Perry shows us with this poetic and factual exhibition, that all objects can be traced back to their ancient origins.

He reminds us that beautifully crafted relics such as portable shrines, although perhaps seemingly archaic in modern society, are something we all carry ourselves in the form of photo albums on our smart phones.

As a self confessed transvestite, Perry explores questions surrounding gender roles and attitudes towards sex and sexual imagery. He places historical artefacts displaying nudity and cross dressing around his own piece entitled High Priestess Cape (2007) embroidered with colourful penis shaped birds perched on branches. While I stood in front of it, an elderly woman next to me whispered quickly and embarrassingly to her accompanying grandson ‘I think we’ll give that one a miss shall we’. I suppose that is exactly the reaction Perry is questioning with this piece.

The exhibition ends with the centrepiece, The Tomb of the Unknown Crafstman (Grayson Perry, 2011); the form of an iron ship sailing into the afterlife, with casts of artefacts from the museum’s collections, bottles representing offerings of blood, sweat and tears and the first ever tool; a flint axe over 250,000 years old. It is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsmen who crafted the artefacts of history. Perry refers to the British Museum as a kind of tomb itself.

“In celebrating craftsmanship I also salute artists, well most of them.”
– Grayson Perry.

Martha Boxley

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