“Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” is now showing at the British Museum. When I visited, a few weeks after its opening, the gloriously gaudy pots of the wonderfully camp and kitschy transvestite artist Perry, shown alongside works from the past, were still turning heads
Turner Prize winner Perry has, in this compact but memorable exhibition, juxtaposed his seductive ceramics, tapestries and metal-works alongside similar items from the British Museum’s permanent collection. Perry’s objets, with their tutti-frutti colours, seem to light up the dusty exhibits placed next to them, breathing new life into old bones.
Perry is obsessive about the craft involved in the production of his work, something unusual amongst recent Turner Prize artists. In one sense, then, this show is a celebration of Perry’s pleasure in his own skill. Or, as the excellent and well-illustrated catalogue says, “The Unknown Craftsman is an artist in the service of his religion, his master, his tribe, his tradition.”
Tomb Guardian, a glazed green and white Perry ceramic from 2011, is placed, in its glass case, next to a tapestry doll from Peru (c900-1430). The latter piece served, in its time, as a totemic figure to warn and protect its owner, its wide-awake hand-stitched eyes and frowning slit-like mouth shamanistic talismans of spiritual power. Perry’s modern-day equivalent is the glazed ceramic, a grotesque demonic figure with arms raised in warning, the tip of its erect phallus a second demonic head, complete with horns.
Perry first visited the Museum as a six year old, and now, forty-odd years later, he is staging an exhibition here centred on a detailed model ship. “Is my unconscious leading me to play out some elaborate act of catharsis using an institution?” he muses. The large cast-iron model ship he has made for this show is also a tomb of sorts, an iron ship ready to sail into the afterlife, one inspired by the original Egyptian models or the ship burials like that uncovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1931. It is also serves as a pun, a craft for the craftsman. Hung with casts of the fruits of the labours of craftsmen and carrying symbolic blood, sweat and tears stored in glass phials strung about the ship’s masts, the central reliquary is symbolic of all tools, being a large flint axe head a quarter-million years old. This is, for Perry, a mystical object: “Holding such a tool in my hand and feeling its fit was my most moving memory of my pilgrimage through the stores of this great institution. This whole exhibition rotates around this humble stone.”
Closest to Perry’s heart among all the objects on show is Alan Measles, a fifty-year-old teddy bear that has belonged to the artist since birth, and which was, the artist tells us, “‘the benign director of my childhood imaginary world”. The battered teddy, in his faded cardy, inspired the gold-glazed ceramic that stands next to it: Prehistoric Gold Pubic Alan Dogu, from 2007. Nearby is a furniture fitting carved in the form of the god Bes, from ancient Egypt. “If Alan Measles had been around in ancient Egypt he would have hung around with Bes,” Perry assures us.
The Frivolous Now, a large ceramic vase from 2011, is as good an example as any of Perry’s ability to chronicle contemporary life, with wit, sentiment and perception, but that also has roots in the past. At first glance the lettering and images that cover its surface bring to mind the lead-glazed earthenware pieces of potter Thomas Toft, a celebrated artist-craftsman from the late 1600s, whose works are also on show here. But the scriptum, and accompanying images, relate to wholly contemporary themes, such as bullying in schools, our obsession with celebrity culture and the paranoia evoked by ubiquitous CCTV.
“Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” runs until 19 February, 2012