Grayson Perry and The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

After I’d watched the ‘Imagine’ BBC programme filmed in anticipation of the opening of the exhibition, there was no doubt that I would go to see ‘Grayson Perry and the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen’ at the British Museum.  As well as giving a glimpse into his thought process, his sly sense of humour and his respect for the skills of people who actually make things, he made one observation that had me cheering in agreement from the sofa.

I’m paraphrasing, but the general sense of his remark was that in time gone by, when something extraordinary was produced, a museum would be built around it, now we seem to have moved to the point where the act of putting any old thing in a museum is meant to give the thing greater import.  When Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an exhibition in 1917 it was a radical act, but nearly 100 years have passed since then, and yet some contemporary artists are still stuck in that groove.

So looking behind the Little Bo Peep outfits, mob caps, electric blue eyeshadow and candy pink motorbike, I was very interested to see what sort of exhibition he would curate at the British Museum.

Given free access to the Museum’s vaults of generally undisplayed artefacts, Perry has selected items that took his fancy, and is displaying them alongside pieces of his own work, some excavated from past shows, but more specially created for this one.  The pieces are shown without any historical context, with new things displayed alongside old ones, challenging us to tell the difference.  But this approach also frees us to see the similarities too, and to consider the common threads which tie back through time and craftsmanship.

While it could easily be viewed as a celebrity artist’s vanity project, the celebration of well-made things by the ‘unknown craftsmen’, made it much more interesting than that.  There’s humour in the juxtapositioning of the objects, and there is much made of Perry’s idolising of his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles.  On the one hand, I suspect that it started out as a bit of a joke, but it does none the less raise questions about idolatry in different cultures, about the carrying of talismans and reliquaries.

The exhibition was very well attended on the day I visited which surprised me at the outset, but then as I went round, waiting my turn to get close to each of the displays to examine them, I became gradually entranced and fascinated to observe the eclectic variety of the people studying both Perry’s work and the Museum artefacts; bending down and craning round corners in the vitrines to see all the details, a different dance to that of when you only have to stand back to look at a painting or a set of flat display cabinets.

Even if you’re put off by Grayson Perry’s ridiculous outfits and his deliberately provocative statements, if you do get the chance, put aside expectations and have a little look at the exhibition.

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