Occasionally, the British Museum curates contemporary events and this month Grayson Perry is the man in charge. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman started on 6th October and runs until February 2012 showcasing a 170 articles with an-all-but-related twist. Handpicked by the artist’s glossy glove from the BM’s huge collection, the display will feature ancient jewelry, statuettes and icons juxtaposed to Perry’s contemporary artwork of vases, pots and casts.
While the exhibition leading motive is said to pay “tribute to those craftsmen of the world who went before him” the question remains whether Perry’s selection of history will offer a decent cultural input or just feel like a jolly wander through some fairly controversial artefacts.
The pieces are from unknown craftsmen and thereby reflect an interesting point. But first, ancient crafts are morsel of history – they show skills and performance but primarily the need to create: they divulge beliefs and highlight the intention to represent.
Throughout the years, one’s artist-self grows in confidence. Born in Essex during the 60s, Perry thrives in the handling of clay but ceramics are not his only skill and behind the lavish 6-foot blonde with a sharp fringe Claire, Grayson Perry assaults the art world with impact and verve. Yes, Claire, is the artist favorite public appearance as a woman. Obviously critic amounts and appearence is makes the headline instead of a balanced angle. Recently, Telegraph arts journalist Florence Waters calls his current exhibition a “mad smorgasbord of world history with a heartfelt message” while Guardian art critic Johnathan Jones admitted wanting to “smash all his pots with a hammer”. The “transvestite potter from Essex” – Adriane Banks for The Spectator – has never been well received: wigs, honesty and art do not match.
But calumny and ridicule didn’t stop Perry to win the Turner Prize in 2003 making use of pottery in the same way Greeks used it for storytelling. His technique is called “coiling” and involves starting from a shape as opposed to “throwing” -starting from scratch into the desired shape – and explores at first a form of therapeutic expression based on his childhood frustrations…
Although, one year later, a series presented at the Victoria Miro in 2004 exposes an interesting turning point. Along with the gallery’s dramatic architecture one can see Map of An Englishman (2004) is a 120 x 150 cm Tudor style etching. The work explore the artist’s own mind: an island takes the center of the print on which counties named Sex, Tender, Cliche and Dreams is surrounded by seas titled Delirium, Schizophrenia and Paranoia. Acrid, yet a descriptive account of the artist’s ego and psyche, the rest of the exhibition unveils a much broader line of reasoning.
One particular piece, Taste and Democracy (2004), is a vase depicting the conversation of ordinary characters. Randomly set they say: “this time they’ve given the Turner Prize to someone who’s not an artist” or “it’s about time a transvestite won the Turner Prize.” Collected thoughts or real quotations, the mise-en-scène shows that the artist has set aside personal narrative to engage in modern mockery and express his view on society. As for Claire she has also undergone several transformation (the more awards Perry collected the younger she has become) and Grayson Perry’s Claire now appears in public as a sparkling young child dressed in colourful robes. In a conversation with Lisa Jardine in July 2004, chosing embroidery and ceramics as a medium, Grayson Perry insists on the idea of “second space” and pottery implies “a craftbased artwork produced by women” regarded as “inferior, not serious, not important”. Sounds familiar?
In 2007, Perry helps to curate Insider Art, a show organised by the Koestler Trust intending to promote and support artwork in jails. Again, Perry is where things happens, experiencing a reality that few would look at. This must be why Grayson Perry recently upgraded to Royal Academician of Arts. Grayson Perry gained recognition and success and the so-called “transvestite-potter” is now indispensable to British art.
Perry knows where to poke because he knows where to look and concentrate action towards a precise, well-built plot: making public the fall outs of modern society. In fact, to cite the artist’s own words : “Sincerity is the new shocking”(Taste and Democracy, 2004) and it is as true for life that it is for Perry’s artwork.
Special thanks to the Victoria Gallery to let me access the 2004 catalogue collection and reading the great words of Lisa Jardine.