Grayson Perry: Mythmaking at the British Museum
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.)
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.
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
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.