Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Grayson Perry, Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Last month after I posted about upcoming Fall Exhibitions 2011, I discovered another show I had to see when I was in London, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum. Readers may recall Perry first making an appearance on bklynbiblio earlier this year when I wrote about his recent election to the Royal Academy as a printmaker. Perry works in different media, but is best known as an artist who makes ceramic pots and vases. He won the highly-acclaimed Turner Prize in 2003 as well. However, he's probably most notoriously known as a transvestite named Claire, and frequently shows up for events like the annual RA dinner dressed in frocks he himself designed. To me, there is something innately British about Perry, a theatricality to his persona in and out of drag that fits into the longer trajectory of British drama, reaching as far back as Shakespeare and beyond. This may seem far-fetched to some--after all, he is a 51-year-old man wearing baby-doll frocks and bonnets--but Perry sees his art as part of history, and thus Claire is more than just a put-on character but an important part of his creative personality. Because of this, I believe Perry is a more difficult sell in the U.S., where no major museum as yet has given him an exhibition (although based on its recent history of solo contemporary artists from the U.K., the Brooklyn Museum would be a perfect venue).  The fact is, Americans are uncomfortable with “trans”-anything, and in the ongoing fight for social equality in marriage and the military, even many gays and lesbians are uncomfortable with "trans" culture, preferring their own “trans”-gressive behavior not to challenge too much the easy-to-identify gay/straight sexual binary.

Perry is a queer artist. He blurs the boundaries of gender and sexuality, but then also pushes the definitions of topics like art, craft, religion, history, and the museum, and ultimately points out the foibles of personal identity as well. And yet (as my friend CC pointed out as we walked through the exhibition) unlike the White Cube commercial sensationalism that his contemporary Damien Hirst exudes, what is so striking about Perry is that you can actually understand him. He may be conceptual at times, but he works with real art objects that the masses can appreciate: ceramic pots (such as the one here, The Rosetta Vase, 2011), cast iron sculptures, prints and drawings, tapestries, and costumes. Hirst favors esoterically titled vitrines with dead sharks or large jewel-encrusted skulls. The very nature of Perry's art, with an intended focus on craft, demonstrates how real of an artist he is, even when he shows up for openings dressed as Claire.

Following the current trend in museums to host artists-as-curators, Perry was given the opportunity to rummage through the seven-million-plus holdings of the British Museum. Director Neil MacGregor has described the show as “eccentrically personal yet infinitely universal in its sense of humanity and commonality.” Rather than use his art to respond to these objects as other artists have done in the past, Perry unites them, demonstrating their commonality in the longer history of civilization. In an interview for the August 2011 issue of the British Museum Journal, he says that he sees himself as a one-man civilization, although he astutely notes that “no civilisation is an island and there’s always an interplay with other civilisations.” In this spirit, he has brought together 200 objects from the BM's collection, all representing Africa, Native America, the Pacific Islands, China, Anglo-Saxon England, and other cultures, along with 35 of his own original works, some premiering for the first time. Like all civilizations, his also has a religion and he announces to the visitor upon entering that his chief god is Alan Measles. Who is Alan Measles? Why, he's a teddy bear that Perry has had since he was a child who has come to represent Claire's alter-ego.

Now, if you're rolling your eyes and thinking this guy is a crack pot, I beg to differ. Sure, it seems a bit inane, but the fact of the matter is, you have to laugh aloud at all of this, and then you realize that Perry is laughing along with you, but in that "Britty" (i.e. British witty) sarcastic way that Americans will never be able to master. Claire/Alan Measles...this is Perry queering our understandings about civilization and religion as we (think we) know it. CC and I laughed aloud through the exhibition. We were joined by a few others in the know, people who realized not to take any of it too seriously. But it wasn't all fun and games. At the same time, we could not stop talking about his work and his ideas, how he manages to make the artifacts of past civilizations relevant to us here and now, not just as sanitized detritus of the past.

Returning to Alan Measles, however, this was really an opportunity for him to shine, for Claire is largely missing from this exhibition (probably the only disappointment with the show). Or rather it was Alan Measles himself who apparently has decided this. After all, he has his own blog where he writes that 2011 is his year to reveal himself, following the examples of Christ, Buddha, and Mohamed before him. But Alan Measles is no ordinary god: “One of my core messages is that I want people to think about what fantasies they are holding on to and to hold their beliefs lightly. If I am a God of anything, I am God of a doubt. Pretty useless for a religion I know, but I feel the world has enough zealots and people attached to being right already.” In a world where religious followers teleologically rely on texts written thousands of years ago to justify living in 2011, it is refreshing to consider that maybe doubting can be even stronger than asserting. (All hail the great Alan Measles!)

The exhibition opens with Perry telling the visitor not to think too hard. He’s not an art historian, just a craftsman, and so he introduces us to his imaginary world and invites the visitor to participate in its artifacts along with those from other world cultures. Arranged thematically, there are sections dedicated shrines, pilgrimages and badges, maps, and the spiritual dimension to sexuality. On the theme of Magick, Perry writes: “Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion, this is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience of the world. Some people call this irrational unconscious experience spirituality. I don’t.”  In wall texts such as these, we encounter over and over succinct yet intelligent explanations for how the artist-craftsman throughout time has not only participated in the making of the visual identifiers of civilizations, but in fact has superimposed his/her supremacy on them because their handiwork is all that survives. He invites us to ponder who  these artist-craftsmen were. We will never know, and this is Perry’s point. The unknown craftsman of the show’s title elevates the importance of these unnamed masters and shows how anonymity has the power to create the most important features of a civilization.

From here the visitor begins to see that Perry actually is taking him/her on an actual pilgrimage. The very museum in which they have been viewing these cultural artifacts all this time now becomes a temple to the past and present. These objects that we see inside vitrines and raised on pedestals aren’t just representations of long-dead peoples but mirrors that show us who we are as well. The fact that so many have come from tombs now plays into the title of his show as well, for the BM (and all museums) are not only temples but also tombs in which we excavate an understanding of the past and how it relates to us.

Many of Perry’s individual art works are simply beautiful. His vases are undoubtedly my favorite works.  The first one seen upon entering is You Are Here, a vase in which Perry envisions different types of visitors to his exhibition, suggesting in bubbles over their heads the many reasons why they may have shown up, from having a free ticket or needing to write a school report, to the social critic who declares “I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed.” Perry's Shrine to Alan Measles could pass for a Tang Dynasty tomb sculpture, except for its contemporary references, dangling  pictures of Princess Diana and the Twin Towers. His cast-iron sculptures were new for me and simply exquisite with their rust-colored sheen. These included Alan Measles on Horseback, a primitivist Don Quixote-like figurine, and the pathos-driven paired figures Our Father, Our Mother, who carry the weight of all civilizations in baskets and satchels on their broken bodies. The tour de force of the exhibition itself, however, is the final piece in the last gallery, appropriately entitled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. A new work made for this exhibition, it is rusty cast-iron funerary ship decorated with casts of numerous objects seen throughout the exhibition itself, from African figure heads to Asian shrines. At the heart of it is a piece of 250,000-year-old flint, the very first tool that allowed an unknown craftsman to make the first product of civilization.

Perry’s exhibition is simply brilliant. I can't say it enough. There is an entrance fee, which may make some people balk, but it is absolutely worth it. Despite his warning not to think about it too much, you cannot help but ponder the associations he has made and how his own beautiful work complements and relates to the long history of artifacts that surround you. But at the same time, the absurdity of Claire/Alan Measles makes you realize you truly do need to take it all in stride, and to laugh—yes, laugh in a museum!—whenever you think it is appropriate. Perry isn't so intellectual about his art that he wants you to forgo enjoying it. On the contrary, he'd rather you simply enjoy it first and perhaps never think about it at all. That of course is almost impossible for art historians like CC and me, but fortunately we were able not only to get excited about his messages, but also laugh our way through the exhibition at his intentional queering of everything you might come to expect from art and the museum.

The exhibition is on until February 19, 2012. There is an exhibition catalogue as well. Be sure to visit the exhibition website where you can see a short video about Perry's preparations for the exhibition.


Sherman Clarke said...

Having just finished The Children's Book, I can't help but think of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren too.

bklynbiblio said...

That's great, Sherman, well-timed for sure. Byatt's book AND Grayson Perry have really helped me reexamine my interest in ceramics, an area I know little about and now look forward to learning more.