Grayson Perry: ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ at the British Museum

20 Oct

On being asked what his favourite piece in the exhibit was – whether his own or one of the creations of the ‘unknown craftsmen’ – Perry declared himself unable to declare. ‘My next pot is my favourite,’ he joked, ever one to spot an opportunity for self-promotion. ‘No, I have no favourites; I’m an equal opportunities curator.’ This is of course the central message of the exhibition: a celebration of the anonymous artists responsible for creating so many important cultural artifacts stored in the British Museum. The paradox of a modern artist famed for his larger-than-life personality and skilled cultivation of publicity curating such an exhibit has already been pointed out. Yet Perry seems genuinely to be disillusioned with the lack of real artistic talent in an industry where, increasingly, a clever idea is a more than adequate substitute.
This concept was set up particularly cleverly in a piece called ‘Tate Modern Reliquary’ (by Grayson Perry himself, 2009), which also incorporates the sense of mass production and ownership of much contemporary art, where everyone can literally take home a piece of it. ‘Tate Modern is the cathedral of the cult of Modern Art,’ the caption reads. ‘I designed this reliquary for the Tate gift shop. Each one contains a fragment of one of my pots.’ It is difficult to tell whether the religious analogy is intended to mock the somewhat naive belief of the visitors who worship at the shrine of ‘Modern Art’, believing that they have found a genuinely holy or original piece (most medieval reliquaries were of course fakes), or whether Perry means to sanctify art as a common belief we can all share. He would probably greatly enjoy the conflict between these two interpretations.
The tapestries and ceramics created by the artist are beautiful. Pieces like ‘I have never been to Africa,’ a comment on Western misperceptions of that continent, and ‘A Walk in Bloomsbury,’ his tribute to the area around the British Museum, continue his tradition of painting social commentary onto pots. A giant tapestry is one of the centrepieces of the exhibit, depicting numerous scenes from modern life; a clay ship of a similar gigantic scale is another. A popular game is apparently attempting to discern Perry’s creations from those of the anonymous craftsmen. One out of two figures – ‘Our Mother’ and more particularly ‘Our Father,’ looks like a genuine religious statue of some benign deity, though the medium of cast iron and oil paint might give it away on closer inspection. A statue of ‘Alan Measles,’ Grayson Perry’s infamous teddy bear mascot, on horseback, is easier to spot, though does resemble an authentic, bear-like warrior. A large jug engraved with machine-guns is stylistically almost identical to two others, from the German Rhineland (dated around 1520-45 and 1690).
Many of the original pieces are of historical as well as artistic interest. A ‘Model of a European family’ and ‘Model of two Dutchman’, from the Chinese Qing Dynasty, respectively 1700-50 and 1662-1772, are testimony to the intense curiosity and inter-cultural interaction between East and West. It is interesting to see this from the other side, where so much study of relations between the ‘West and the Third World’ is made through an Orientalist or Euro-centric perspective, even if Europe is no longer seen as inherently culturally superior. A flag made by the Asafo, a military group set up by the Fante in Ghana, 1850-1927, is apparently notable because the adoption of a Company flag was a British military practice. Not only did they co-opt the device, the Fante turned it on its head by depicting a black man holding a sword up victoriously, a white man lying headless next to him. Other exhibits, such as the portable shrines from Japan and West India, and a sarong from Indonesia (dated, somewhat ambiguously, 1600s-early 1900s), are just exquisitely designed and crafted. The figurines taken from tombs – on which the name of the exhibition is partly based – are also haunting and beautiful.
Perhaps the weirdest, most incongruous item – besides the authentic ‘Hello Kitty’ handtowel –was a ‘Doctor’ mask from Romania, a kind of giant Mr Potato-head with Mickey-Mouse sunglasses, a tophat with a picture of a blonde woman in a garden, and a vial dangling from its nose. A relatively modern relic, it was reportedly made by Ion Tatuianu and his brother for New Year performances. My personal favourite were the numerous ancient ceramics containing borderline pornographic scenes, and a pubic ornament from Western Australia, donated by the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. How they got hold of it is anyone’s guess. Overall this was a clever, quirky and insightful visual treat. Perry’s disclaimer on the wall at the beginning was too self-deprecatory: ‘Do not look too hard for meaning here. I am not a historian, I am an artist.’ Even historians rarely claim to find true meaning in their discoveries, but here it is notnecessary. The pieces speak for themselves.


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