Review – In The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry invites us on a pilgrimage: saluting the ‘travel’ experience generated by the museum, we are to call at the historical and cultural stations that have informed our imaginative world and material output. ‘Few civilisations spring up spontaneously or develop in isolation’, we are shown: rather, ‘cultures borrow and adapt’, with visual languages invented through appropriation of ‘the other’, and its combination with ‘the local’.
At the heart of the British Museum, Perry has created a microcosmic exhibition to rival its host, selecting from the BM’s massive collection of world objects, but also stirring in material of his own making. Perry enshrines an eclectic assemblage, housing juxtaposition after juxtaposition, for us to contemplate: from an ancient Egyptian Soul House, a symbolic abode for souls of the dead; a late 1800s sailing chart from the Marshall Islands made of overlapping canes; a ‘power figure’ from the Democratic Republic of Congo; a 19th century Russian engraving of ‘A Forge for Turning Old People into Young’; to a 12th century Irish Sheela-na-gig, a mysterious early Christian (?) figurine of a woman splaying her labia.
Initially united by the artist’s delight in them, Perry quickly begins to weave a joyous matrix of connections between these objects, drawing visual parallels of breath-taking historic-cultural scope – a portable 10th century Japanese shrine, for instance, seems to him ‘like a miniature wardrobe belonging to a doll’s house owned by a 1920s film startlet’. The numerous examples of his own pieces complete this job of linkage, his pots, tapestries and sculptures, clearly springing from the material palette only display, adopting and adapting, mimicking and mishmashing.
But, while this is indeed a universal meditation on ‘the Chinese whispers of culture over the centuries’ – an ever-warping interchange between peoples through their objects – Perry approaches the task through the concrete particulars of his own experience. Consequently, the exhibition takes the form of a deeply intimate near-autobiography, in which the artist-come-curator exposes his ‘bit-mad’ self, with all its ‘flaws, eccentricities, and perversions’. On this journey into the ‘deep in the mountains of my mind’, we are given access to the imaginary civilisation Perry created during his childhood, ruled over by the benign dictator Alan Measles, his Teddy Bear – now the ‘guru and living god in my personal cosmology’. Perry explains – and shows us through his work – how, upon becoming an artist, his personal civilisation had ‘traded with the world and all its history’ so that, today, it is impossible to tell ‘where my imagination stops and the world starts’.
Perry’s dissection of himself is most explicit in his Rosetta Vase, depicting the diagrammatised figure of ‘The Artist’ divided into lobes – with ‘legacy of childhood’, ‘veiled existential thoughts’, ‘curiosity’, and ‘hubris’, residing at the top of head; ‘fantasy world’ and ‘autobiography’ on his cheeks; ‘interior quest’ on upon the shin; and ‘humour’ taken on the chin.
But ‘do not look too hard for meaning here’, Perry implores us: ‘I am not a historian, I am an artist’. And there is considerable wisdom in such a warning. At the heart of it, this exhibition is the product of Perry’s love affair with ‘stuff’ – his ‘long and sympathetic’, ‘ever-curious’, ‘hands-on relationship with materials’. It is fitting, therefore, that the centrepiece of the show takes the form of the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself– a cast iron ship adorned by copies of the so-called ‘hits of the British Museum’, and carrying the tool that begat all tools, and thus the Adam of material culture; the flint hand axe.
Words/ Photo Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst