Beyond Buildings


Grayson Perry: Mythmaking at the British Museum

Submit A Comment | View Comments

Perry Map of Truths

Map of Truths. Image Credit: Nick Owen


We make sense of our world with markers, maps, and frameworks, but also by pattern, ritual, and mental maps. To create a deeper sense of where we are, we create a myth that can function as an alternate reality, in which things makes sense because of what they mean in a manner that defies logic or what we can experience directly. Religions provide such myths, science sometimes does, and the arts, from literature to the fine arts to architecture, certainly are able to help us construct such a universe of meaning. One artist, Grayson Perry, has made the construction of such a mythic universe his lifelong and self-conscious task. It is now on display at the British Museum in London. Perry was given the run of the museum, and, in The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, has assembled the fruits of his searches (aided by many curators) mixed in with his own work in an exhibition that will be on view through February 19th of next year.


(If I am sounding these days like a representative of the London Tourism Board, forgive me: a week stay in that city exposed me to more worthwhile art and architecture than I have seen all year in a place like New York or Paris, and there is still more to come. I will cap my review of everything that is going on there with some thoughts on why there is so much going on there.)


grayson_perry_tomb craftsman

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Image Credit: Stephen White.


Perry is an odd bird.  He is, strictly speaking, a ceramicist, and he won the Turner Prize in 2003 on the strength on his magnificently crafted works in that medium. These days, however, he creates in everything from bronze and wood to fabric. It is what he does with those media that pulls them all together. Perry has invented a persona for himself: a cross-dressing assistant or high priest to the cult of his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles. He builds shrines to the doll (like Shrine to Alan and Claire, 2011), shows him on pots being shot down over Eastern Europe and coming to new understanding there (The Near Death and Enlightenment of Alan Measles, 2011), takes him on pilgrimages in which he builds a motorcycle with a portable shrine, as well as a whole outfit for himself as chauffeur.  Not everything he makes tells Alan’s story: he also creates pots that are riffs on what he sees while watching television or that are comments on popular culture.


Grayson_Perry_Rosetta Vase

The Rosetta Vase. Image Credit: Victoria Miro Gallery.


It is insane and yet all makes sense together and, because Perry is a master storyteller, is all completely convincing. When I was visiting the exhibition, Perry was there, in a tweed jacket and conservative demeanor, explaining the madness calmly to a middle age couple that, like my fellow visitors, a generally conservative lot from Cincinnati, were in thrall to Measlesania. Perry’s craft is making a mythic universe.


At the British Museum, Perry has surrounded his own work with hundred of objects culled from the immense collections of which we as tourists only see a few pieces at a time. Everything from antique coins to Aleut figures, from African figures to Japanese Hello Kitty paraphernalia, came out of the storerooms to give a context to Perry’s fetish objects, maps to the world he has created, and narrative vases. 


Next to a series of mandalas, a Mexican codex from the 16th century, and a map based on Pilgrim’s Progress, hangs the image that sums it all up, Map of Truths and Beliefs (2011).  At its core are all the names we give to heaven and paradise, on a cartouche held up by a wolf and a doll (Claire, Alan’s companion).  Around it are holy sites like Varanesi and cities such as Hiroshima; Graceland and Stonehenge take their place with Silicon Valley and Yale. The pictures that illustrate these names, however, show various pieces of fantastical architecture. This is not a tourist map or a geographic organization, nor does it represent anything we might recognize in a logical and consistent manner.  It is, rather, a picture of an alternate place with its own forms, imagery, and structure.


At the very end, Perry surrounds his Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (2011), the piece that gives the exhibition its name, with works of great, but unknown craftspeople from around the world. As we go off into the gift shop to buy reproduction Alan Measles, he sails off into a world of his own making. He will keep making. We move out into the empty atrium Foster plunked down in the British Museum’s center, and out into the city, and everything somehow looks different, missing the thread this great artist has woven for us. We need the myth.




Be the first to add a comment to this post.

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.