Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

I couldn’t claim to be a lover of the Turner Prize. The often sensationalism of the shortlisted artists and winners just doesn’t do anything for me. But then when I heard that 2003 winner Grayson Perry was to exhibit at my beloved British Museum, and trusting those who constantly bring me wonderful things to see and do, I was curious enough to find out more about the artist and then later go to see the exhibition itself.

When we arrived to the museum and climbed those wonderful winding steps up to the special exhibition entrance, full of excitement as usual to be in this most amazing of places, we were overjoyed to be greeted by the first of many grin-inducing exhibits…. Outside the entrance to The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, currently resides the most awe inspiring motorbike (yes, I said motorbike, me) of glossy pink and gleaming chromium, adorned with whit and with, in pride of place, the motor home of one Alan Measles (neatly modeled by a ‘stunt double,’ the charming Pinny). And thus began our delightful journey through this most inspiring of exhibitions….and journey really is the word…..

Jam packed with shrines, maps, souvenirs, the ancient, and modern, we stepped into a veritable wonderland and within seconds (I’m really not exaggerating, I promise, although I know I am prone to it) I was beaming with the joy of it all. All around me were treasures from all over the British Museum, gleefully picked by Perry to express his inspirations and share his love of ‘stuff’. I was immediately taken in by the juxtaposition of Perry’s works and exhibits from every corner of the museum, every age and every style, and furthermore intoxicated by his mantra: ‘A relaxed, humble, ever-curious love of stuff is central to my idea of being an artist’.

As a big lover of ‘stuff’ myself, and a loony romantic who finds treasure and beauty all around me, every day, it was with utter delight that I began to make my way around what became to me more like a show, or rather like The Great Exhibition of my time. I could genuinely write for hours about all this, and if you know me I could talk at you for an age to share my joy in it, but if I can write enough here to inspire at least a few of you to see this incredible exhibition I’ll be made up……so here goes…..

I really should first talk about Alan Measles (pictured), because not only is he integral to this exhibition, but even a new hero for me, alongside his owner Perry too of course. Alan Measles is the dapper, charismatic, bold, legend of a bear to Grayson Perry, thus named after Perry’s childhood friend Alan, and because he had measles at the time he came to meet the bear. As we discovered each new part of the exhibition, we found Alan Measles in almost every configuration and medium present in the show….painted onto ceramics, stitched onto flags and immortalised in effigies. A hero throughout the ages, Alan Measles soon became our ‘Where’s Wally’ as we were excited to find him and be the first to point him out.

By the time I came across Perry’s vividly embroidered Hold Your Beliefs Lightly (above) I was already the bear’s new biggest fan, and introduced to us as ‘the guru of doubt’ I was impressed to see him dishing out sensible advice to other religions. I was delighted with this slogan and soon decided to take it as my new mantra.

And this was to be a bit of a theme as I drank in each strategically chosen piece, and soon bought into Perry’s ideals, morals and witty commentary. Perhaps some of the best examples of this are in the two ceramic urn-shaped vases, glazed with such remarks and cleverness. The Rosetta Vase (seen above), in vivid yellow, is a clever play on the Rosetta Stone, its blue pattern seeking to unlock a more modern code though. Emblazoned with Jacob Bronowski’s quotation: ‘Monuments are meant to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder,’ we are made to think about our contrasting beliefs though, rather than language.

The language of The Frivolous Now (just above) really raises a wry smile for me, as Perry has used this piece to display some of the (don’t hate me) ‘buzz words’ he noted from an evening’s reading and viewing in February 2011. Slogans like ‘going forward,’ ‘Mumsnet’ and ‘corporate spiritualisation’ almost made me cringe with embarrassment, whilst I couldn’t help laughing a little at and to myself over ‘Take That,’ ‘OMG,’ and ‘App.’ The piece is so very telling of our time I find, and with the clever use of the Toft style decoration, phrases like ‘Product Launch,’ ‘Stunning 3D,’ ‘Boutique Hotel’ and ‘Animal Rights’ are immortalised.

Perhaps one of the most impressive works on show is Perry’s Map of Truths and Beliefs, (above) an immense tapestry laden with images of pilgrimages, religious and secular. More interesting still though, is the exhibit Perry has chosen to sit opposite his stitched masterpiece, a souvenir hand towel from Japan, featuring two Hello Kitty characters dressed in traditional pilgrim attire. ‘So here we have an object featuring modern cartoon characters and a ritual dating back to the ninth century AD coming together on an object carried in most Japanese women’s handbags,’ Perry says…. ‘Perhaps more than any other object,’ he continues, ‘this hand towel embodies the spirit of the exhibition.’

The witticism continues in another ceramic vase, Grumpy Old God. And again we see Perry’s wonderful bear taking on a seemingly historical, macho role of great importance, as he lords above the other occupants of the vase in various guises (my favourites being ‘ALANIS MEZELI’ and his doublet and peasecod look).Alan Measles sees the Facebook Generation distracted by smart phones and obsessed with celebrity. The multimedia collage of modern life makes it hard for an upcoming God to successfully establish himself without a web presence.’ And who can blame the poor bear, surrounded by people wielding iPhones, and texting ‘OMG,’ and posters for various ‘themed’ club nights?

I loved the ‘Pope Alan’ stamp, which Perry created for his German pilgrimage as something he could give away and easily reproduce. And the pilgrimage theme continues rather aptly with Pilgrimage to the British Museum (below), a wonderfully detailed ink drawing of Alan’s epic journey.

As the show comes to a close, those thoughts of journeying become rather more saturnine, as DH Lawrence’s ‘Ship of Death’ is quoted beneath an ornate Maori Treasure Box (1830s) in the form of a heavily carved wooden boat. Hung high above the other exhibits, one is forced to look up to the fateful little ship as though in some underworld beneath its path. And after my gaze returned to the horizontal, it was the eponymous Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (below) that I was to spend the greatest time devouring. Adorned with replicas of some of the museum’s most famous objects, this impressively intricate cast iron ship seeks to remind us of all the skilled, unknown craftsmen whose work has contributed so greatly to this most wonderful of museums. Having spent the last two years cherry picking some ninety pieces from the museum’s collection to sit beside thirty of his own, this centre piece and climax to the exhibition is an awesome symbol of both the work of the museum and its treasures, as well as Perry’s inspirations and power to inspire.

Perry suggests that ‘Age lends authority,’ but his contemporary pieces don’t suffer from their newness at all. Rather, when curated amongst the other pieces carefully chosen for the exhibition, they cleverly capture a place in time, juxtaposed with the other artefacts from the British Museum, highlighting the links and relationships between times and cultures. He bids us ‘Do not look too hard for meaning here, I am not a historian, I am an artist.’ And despite this and the various negative opinions about, I wholeheartedly believe that this show is in the right place. Without wishing to sound over dramatic (and rather like a Marks and Spencer’s advert) this is not just an exhibition, but a show of the man, an incredible inspiration to treasure the moment, and sometimes just ‘stuff’.

The exhibition, at the British Museum, runs until 19th February and costs £10 for adults (free for members). Oh, and there’s an excellent afternoon tea ticket package too!


3 thoughts on “Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

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