Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

This Peter Pan artist pays tribute to childhood and history's forgotten artists


Grayson Perry is one of the most recognisable of the Turner Prize winners. Often appearing as his alter-ego Claire, donned in a frilly girl’s dress and bows, along with an almost grotesque childish grin, the transvestite artist’s attire is as famous as his work.

His obsession with childhood and imagination feeds into his work as well as his fashion, and “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” exhibition at the British Museum aims to combine reality, imagination and history.

The exhibition has been sculpted with love and care by Perry, who accompanies us, like a modern-day Peter Pan into his world of chosen artefacts. Many of these objects are from the British Museum’s collections, ranging from Renaissance medals, Polynesian fetishes and Tibetan stupas. Amongst these relics, he has interspersed his own work- his Early English Motorcycle Helmet rests comfortably alongside an ancient Ghanaian headdress piece, making you question what is relic and what is imitation.

Instead of the standard, third-person captions to accompany his work, Grayson’s work has written his captions in first person, talking directly to the reader like a friend and explaining his motivations behind certain creations, in a way that is neither patronising nor pretentious.

The whole exhibition provides an insight into Perry's modus operandi as well as the work of other craftsmen. His urn, The Frivolous Now, seems to be a product of now. It buzzes with humorous references to the contemporary- 'Botox', 'phone hacking', 'Mumsnet' and 'Lotto rollover', yet it has been modelled on ancient pots from China and Greece. This is an artist whose work, which often seems frivolous, is rooted and shaped by the intense study of past sculptors. The climax of the exhibition is “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”, a giant ship made by Perry, that pays homage to these anonymous cultural makers and resembles a recently unearthed archaeological treat.

Despite showing a deep reverence and respect of past craftsmen, Perry pokes fun and revels in their cruder creations, and mocks the contemporary art world. We see ancient relics with massive penises and tablets of Assyrians copulating. None of this is new in craftsmanship, but Perry encourages to laugh about it as well as appreciate it. Alan Measles, Perry’s beloved teddy bear, and alter-ego appears around the exhibition, embossed in urn, immortalised in a shrine, or sporting a large erection.

By lovingly combining his childish imagination with past relics, Grayson Perry guides us around his world, yet also produces a fitting tribute to all the skilled craftsmen who have been forgotten by history.

The Frivolous Now

"The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" is at the British Museum until February 19

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