In an effort to regain some perspective on what is actually happening at the British Museum right now, and to see the extraordinary Grayson Perry exhibition that has been unveiled there for us in a clearer light, I give you the facts of the matter in the manner of a police report: “A 51-year-old man from Chelmsford, dressed as a woman, has been caught smuggling pots into the British Museum. The man, who claimed to be a modern artist specialising in the production of such pots, was accompanied by a battered teddy bear, whom he called ‘Alan Measles’, with whom he appeared to be having an animated conversation about the meaning and value of various objects from the museum’s collection. The man, who gave his name as ‘Grayson Perry’, and who, at the time, was wearing a pair of pink leather hot pants covered with teddy-bear insignia, insisted he was ‘making an exhibition’, and that it was the British Museum itself, established in 1753 as a national institution devoted to the deeper and finer understanding of global civilisation, that had invited him and his teddy bear to select the objects and install them alongside the aforementioned pots on the first floor of its Round Reading Room, where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital.”
You couldn’t make it up, could you? What in Neptune’s name can the gods of art have been chewing on when they came up with Grayson Perry? Mushrooms? Ketamine? Qat? The sheer unlikeliness of his rise and rise is something we should never lose sight of. And if ever the day comes when scores of transvestite potters roam the land, curating exhibitions of the priceless possessions of the British Museum, I trust we will continue actively to remember that Perry was the first. What’s more, if anyone reading this review is thinking that such a day will never arrive, because it is too preposterous and weird to envisage, I say two words in rebuttal: Alan Measles. If a teddy bear can become the co-creator of this profound, revolutionary showing, surely anything is possible?
Perry’s exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, is revolutionary not only because modern artists are not generally ushered centre stage at the British Museum, but also because Perry himself is a bona fide revolutionary. By creating art in such a loudly artisanal fashion — by making pots, sewing flags, building shrines, weaving tapestries, casting iron — he is deliberately confronting pretty much all the existing modern art conventions and aligning himself, instead, with a much older creative formula. If we avert our eyes for a moment from the eye-catching pink hot pants and the talking teddy bear — not easy, I admit — what we actually see before us is a British traditionalist, hellbent on reminding us of the superbly quotidian contribution made to art by the little man and woman. The unsigned presence. The unknown creator. The so-called nobody.
What in Neptune’s name can the gods of art have been chewing on when they came up with Grayson Perry?
The paradox, of course, is that in order to big up the little man, Perry needed first to make himself enormous. All the impressive legwork he has put into achieving his own current celebrity — the witty appearances on Have I Got News for You, the glamorous magazine spreads and decor intrusions — have created the curious situation in which a huge and unmissable cultural presence is leading a reappreciation of tiny and anonymous things. Paradox upon paradox upon paradox.
The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman features an assortment of British Museum objects, selected by Grayson and Alan, arranged loosely in themes and shown alongside an impressive number of Perry’s own works.
Shrines is one theme. Maps is another. Pilgrimage is a third. In each of these sections, Perry’s contributions have been smuggled into the display, so a large part of the fun comes from separating brand-new creations from the ancient ones. Thus, a large ceramic figurine of a seated fertility god proudly displaying his horned genitals, which looks as if it were made by the Mayans, or perhaps the Chimu of Peru, turns out to be a recent sculpture by Perry of Alan Measles showing you his willy. Meanwhile, the stuffed hessian sack with a funny face drawn on it, which you assumed to be a comic likeness of Alan Measles by Perry, is actually a 1,000-year-old Peruvian magic doll.
This constant toing and froing between genuine BM contributions and cunningly false Perry moments makes for an exhibition that keeps you on your toes, but also encourages you to think of the past in a different way — less reverentially, more actively. Those who believe there is something overly childish about a 51-year-old man talking to his teddy should examine the produce of William Simpson, the Staffordshire plate-maker who, in 1700, gave the queen a face like a smiley badge and the neck of a giraffe. Most 10-year-olds could achieve a better royal likeness than that. As for Ralph Toft, who painted the next Staffordshire plate along, in 1677, he should surely have been attending a nursery, rather than producing traditional English slipware. By sniffing out extreme childishness in the art of the past, Perry allows our own age to celebrate its inner baby less shamefully.
The same thing happens with sex. By announcing his sexual direction loudly in a wall caption — “When I was a young transvestite I joined Britain’s oldest group for crossdressers, the Beaumont Society, named after the Chevalier D’Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810)” — Perry clears the path for all manner of naughty exhibits: a Mesopotamian tablet of two ancient Assyrians going at it like Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee; a Renaissance medal of a man’s face made entirely of penises; a medieval pilgrim badge of a man carrying a giant phallus in his sack; a Greek oil flask, from c560BC, shaped like genitalia. If you think the modern world is obsessed with sex and violence, check out the nasty spiked “fighting bracelets” Moroccan women had to wear.
Perry’s selection is naturally biased towards obscure artefacts and minor art forms. You won’t find the Elgin Marbles in here, or the Sutton Hoo treasure. Despite being a frequent BM visitor, I found myself examining most of the exhibits with virginal interest, as if I had never seen them before. Actually, I probably haven’t seen them before. My firm suspicion is that most of these exciting artisanal goodies live on dark shelves in the bowels of the museum, and have never previously seen the light of day. Yet, fascinating though they are, they are not, I suggest, the chief reason this is such a rousing event. For that, we need to thank Perry and the generous selection of his own produce he has inveigled shamelessly into the display. For someone who insists he is batting fiercely for the anonymous craftsman, Perry is mightily good at not remaining anonymous himself.
Before you even enter the show, a pimped-up pink and blue motorbike with a portable shrine to Alan Measles attached to the front welcomes you, in strikingly un-British Museum fashion, to Grayson’s world. Among the outstanding exhibits encountered inside is a tall yellow vase, found in the Magick section, featuring a pseudo-scientific diagram of the artist as a baby. Called The Rosetta Vase, it is spectacularly beautiful, but also slightly spooky, in the manner of a phrenology head.
Among the maps, the biggest is a full-colour Perry tapestry showing the world’s leading religions and beliefs, and tracing the murderous wars they cause. For me, though, the outstanding exhibits in an outstanding show were two cast-iron sculptures of an African mother and father, trudging through the Pilgrimage section with all their worldly possessions hanging from their necks. The weary refugees are instantly recognisable from the global news. Any global news.
I expected this show to be as inventive as it is. But its poignancy surprised me.