Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

Fave books of 2006

It’s end-of-year list time. These weren’t all first published this year, and I daresay I’ve forgotten some, but they are at least all books I’d recommend. In no particular order:

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama.

I blogged about this before. Simon is a serious historian (rather than, say, a journalist who writes occasional books) who writes brilliantly and is a firm believer in the virtues of a narrative approach to history. So I think he’s usually worth checking out. In this case I think he does a really good job telling the life of Rembrandt and establishing it in context. As a bonus, the book is full of gorgeous glossy plates of the paintings — it would almost be worth buying for the pictures alone.

Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin.

Another one I blogged about earlier. I’ll just quote some of what I said then: “Oliver Sacks fans will remember Temple Grandin as the autistic slaughterhouse designer in An Anthropologist on Mars. She has a particular affinity with animals and has used her talent for understanding them to help her design corrals, feedlots and slaughterhouses which are less stressful for the animals. The subtitle of Animals in Translation is ‘Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior’. Grandin uses her insights as an autistic person to help explain how animals behave and in the process explores the nature of autism itself.”

A Social History of English Cricket by Derek Birley.

The title is an accurate description of the book. On the basis that everything people do is shaped by their times, I guess you could write a social history of English anything – theatre, banking, food – and there would be plenty of subject matter. But cricket does seem especially appropriate, and not just because it’s a stereotypically English pursuit.

The reason cricket neatly brings out some of the tensions in English society is that cricket was the one sport that attempted to combine amateurs and professionals. Of the other English sports, football quickly became a commercial activity, played and watched by mainly working-class men in professional leagues dominated by the great industrial cities. Rugby split into two sports: Rugby League (professional, working class) and Rugby Union (amateur, middle class). But cricket rose to prominence in the gambling culture of the C18th with aristocrats fielding teams against each other for high stakes, and the teams would include talented men from their estates or the local villages – grooms and blacksmiths and so on – who were paid to play. So from the beginning there was a culture of gentlemen amateurs and working class pros in the same team. Given the class-riddled state of English society for most of the past 250 years, a staggering amount of hypocrisy and doublethink was the result.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl by Wendy Jones.

The memoirs of the Turner Prize winning potter. I blogged about this before here and here.

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stainton.

A well-written biography of an interesting man I didn’t know much about before. Being a gay socialist modernist poet from one of the most conservative regions of Spain in the 1920s and 30s didn’t exactly make Lorca’s life easy. But it does make for an involving story. The poetry was interesting too, though it’s the kind of work that leaves you wondering how much you’re missing in translation.

The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

A book about cooking meat which combines practical information — the various cuts, how to choose the best meat and the underlying principles of different cooking methods — with information about different meat production methods and labelling schemes and a thoughtful consideration of the ethical aspects of buying and eating meat. And indeed a lot of recipes and a list of high-quality meat suppliers. A rare example of a food book which manages to be much more than just a list of recipes.

And finally, a book which I didn’t buy or read for the first time this year but deserves a plug – the Collins Bird Guide (to the birds of Britain and Europe) by Lars Svensson, Peter J. Grant, Killian Mullarney and Dan Zetterstrom. I’ve had the book for a bit, but I was struck again by how good it is when I was in Spain this year. You never quite know how good a field guide is until you use it, and this one seems to consistently provide the right information to allow you identify the bird you’re looking at. The illustrations are excellent and the text is thorough and lucid. I’ve used plenty of different field guides over the years, of insects and flowers and birds from different parts of the world. This is certainly the best of them.

Grayson Perry on contemporary art

This is from the Perry autobiography, when he’s been accepted at Portsmouth Poly to do an Art foundation course:

I thought I was OK as an artist. I knew I was able but I had no sense that I was especially gifted. I don’t think a gift is apparent at nineteen in a contemporary artist. Contemporary art demands a voice, though few artists have found their voice at nineteen. What is apparent in young work is the technical skill – Raphael drew like an angel at fifteen – as well as an aptitude for the more physical aspects of the work, but the voice and the emotional intelligence come later. I didn’t have that and my work was very derivative. I don’t think it was peculiar that nobody thought that I would do well in the art world and it was probably better for me than if I had been pumped up as a good artist. I was an average artist bumbling on.

I’d like to think that would be an interesting paragraph even to someone who disliked contemporary art. Perhaps that’s too optimistic.

Not that there necessarily has to be a choice between ‘technical skill’ and ‘voice’ and ’emotional intelligence’. There’s no doubt that artists like Velasquez, Rembrandt or [insert name here] had all three. But I think if people who were unsympathetic to contemporary art thought of it as art which favoured voice and emotional intelligence over displays of technical virtuosity, they might understand it better. They might still decide they didn’t like it, but at least they’d have tried to approach it on its own terms.

Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl

I’ve just read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, which is the autobiography of Grayson Perry, the artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003. I quite like his art, but the main reason I bought the book was that I enjoy his columns for the Times (if that link doesn’t work, you’ll just have to go to their main site and search for yourself).

Perry is one of the more memorable Turner Prize winners, though not really for his work. I mentioned that I was reading the book to my mother, and she looked blank at ‘Grayson Perry’ but immediately knew who I meant by ‘the transvestite potter’. It’s a brilliant bit of branding. I’m quite certain he didn’t become either a transvestite or a potter to make himself more memorable, but it has certainly worked.

So the obvious reason to read the book, which covers his life up to the point where he sold his first work, is to learn either about the transvestism or the art, and he writes well about both. Actually, though, it’s an enjoyable book in its own right. It was written by a friend of his, Wendy Jones, based on taped interviews, and it has the intimate immediacy of the spoken voice. It would be an good read just as a memoir of growing up in Essex in the 60s and 70s, although the second half of the book, which deals with the time from when he left home to study art, is probably more immediately anecdote-worthy.

Here’s a semi-random extract, describing a summer-job:

Being a sugar factory where zillions of tonnes of sugar were stored, there was a constant problem with wasps. Wasps made their nests in the gounds, then zoomed in on the sugar: there were swarms of them hovering in the factory. There were jumbo insecticutors at the doors of the factory that went VCHKUFF-VCHKUFF-KUFF-KUFF the whole time. Employees were paid a pound if they found a wasp nest so the workers would spend their lunchtimes careering around the grounds after a wasp to find its nest in the hope of earning a few quid.

Grayson Perry on the search for originality in art

It always faintly depresses me when I’m trying to find arts coverage in a news website, and I have to get to it by clicking on the ‘Entertainment’ link. But that wasn’t what I wanted to say. I’ve mentioned Grayson Perry’s columns in the Times before; I think he writes well and his position as an insider of the contemporary art world doesn’t prevent him from exhibiting thoughtful scepticism. His latest includes this:

Crash my party you bastards, a work by Richard Hughes, one of the nominees, is made of artfully arranged debris. It reminded me of one of my tutors at art college who said he sometimes applied “the rubbish dump test” to work by students. If their work was thrown on to a rubbish dump, would passers-by say: “Oh, look, there is a work of art on that dump”, or would they pass by oblivious to the discarded piece of avant garde? To this day I am not sure which result constitutes a pass or a fail in my tutor’s eyes. If they had spotted something recognisably an art work, was that good or bad?

On the Beck’s Futures website the word “innovative” crops up several times. Terms such as innovative, original, ground-breaking and cutting-edge make me suspicious. These are not words an artist would ever use about himself or his work. They are PR terms, they are words used to engage a news agenda, to appeal to a desire akin to the male sexual appetite, a lust for fresh meat. The economist and social philosopher Ludwig von Mises said: “Innovation is the whim of an elite before it becomes the need of the public.”

I thought ‘These are not words an artist would ever use about himself or his work’ was a particularly interesting comment. It’s nice to think it’s true, but even if they don’t say it, it could still be driving the way the work.

As ever, I’m tempted to make this into a comment about poetry, but I’ll resist.

Grayson Perry

I’ve been very much enjoying Grayson Perry’s articles in the Times. Perry is the artist who won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his subversive/satirical ceramics and is probably best known for collecting the prize dressed as a small girl. [BBC, Tate] Anyway, the latest article is here.

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