Not, for once, a comparison between two exhibitions, but I found I had quite enough to say about this one individually.
Grayson Perry: the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, British Museum (visited 21st October 2011)
In the early years of the British Museum (est. 1753), collections consisted of tokens drawn from all over God’s world, natural and man-made. The Museum also provided a concrete proclamation of Britain’s imperialist standing on the world stage, one that in today’s post-colonial era it has needed to discreetly step back from. For example, the mammoth History of the World in 100 Objects celebrates the totality of the human endeavour, with Britain’s role and the history of the Museum’s collection sidelined.
It has also been seeking to break down barriers between modern disciplines – barriers which it had no small role in creating. For example, the Statuephilia exhibition (2008-9) juxtaposed modern art by five household names among the museum’s permanent collection of anonymous antiquities, raising fascinating questions between the nature of art and artefact, representation and context, and ancient and modern (see blog 5th September 2011).
In The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a well-known artist explores the two-way relationship between past and present, us and the ‘other’, and the individual and his or her society, with a particularly delicious ambiguity between personal pronouns. Grayson Perry has clearly had fun, and, while Anish Kapoor remains the only artist who’s managed to make me laugh out loud in a gallery (the shooting gun in the Royal Academy’s 2009 exhibition), Perry won a fair number of smiles and grins.
Reference is not made to the Cartoon Museum, located conveniently close to the British Museum. The line between cartoon and art is one that Perry might have articulated more purposely given the nature of his ceramics (and the suggestion that the Haidan figure of a man in European dress threatening a woman was a satirical comment on European culture). I agree with him that there should be more humour in modern art, rather than the endless deadening thuds of hollow seriousness. However, since Perry openly sets himself apart from those artists, can he see craftsmanship in cartoons, and align himself with, say, Steve Bell?
But that is an aside: what I find particularly impressive is the sheer bravery of the undertaking here, and the confidence and flair with which it has been pulled off. The exhibition can be interpreted in a number of ways, but for me it provides a rare and clear introduction for the general public to museology – the study of museums, not what is in them – and from the point of view of an artist, not a curator.
The visitor’s attention is drawn to the difficulties involved in interpreting material and visual culture in general. For example, The Frivolous Now is a comment on such a specific modern British moment that it brings into question the longevity of the ‘original context’ (as if there would ever be a single one – the ‘cultural biography of objects’ is a wonderful way of describing the varied life-histories of things). Perry himself dismisses the ‘Duchampian power of the context’ (Guardian 17/09/11), whereby a piece becomes ‘art’ by being placed in a gallery, but this is just one kind of context. By extension, Perry embraces fakes – ‘I love fakes for they make us think about what it is we see in the authentic’. How much do we value an object because of its perceived context?
Do we learn anything new about any of the pieces drawn from the museum’s collection? Florence Waters, writing for the Telegraph (05/10/11), felt not: ‘this is not a museum exhibition, nor will you learn anything of much significance about the things you see’. I view this as unfortunately missing one the key points of this perfectly museum-like exhibition. Museums are all about context, or contexts – they do not ‘decontextualize’ objects as often stated, and nor do they ever ‘reconstruct’ history in the sense Waters seems to assume.
The objects are not now silent because they have been ripped from their historical context, or that of their more ‘legitimate’ museum setting – and they’ll still sing to you if you’ll listen. The harmonies in this exhibition arise from cross-cultural comparisons derived from personal choice, linked to questions, concepts and statements where each object plays a very significant role. Maybe it would have helped if Perry had explicitly referred to the field of museology, or at least not have been so self-depreciating from the outset (the first thing you read is a declaration of no historical expertise – honest, but detracts from the positive contribution or the intelligence of the contributor).
There is also the issue of relevance, itself closely interwoven with context. Perry has sought objects that match or at least fit in with his works, rather than seeking objects that have inspired him, which is normally how artists present their interactions with the past and other cultures. In doing so, he has opened a new chapter in the lives of these busy objects. Their relevance to us is questioned, altered and refreshed – although, admittedly, the reasoning behind the choices was not always made clear.
There is a degree of self-indulgence concerning the focus of Perry’s childhood teddy bear, a would-be deity in today’s increasingly secular times. The story of the journey to Germany comes across slightly as a forced backdrop, and unnecessary scenery. It sounds much worse than it is – the bear soon becomes a useful, easily recognizable symbol that provides coherence to the collection. The bear as companion/god worked surprisingly well with the idea of a tomb, not merely as an exhibition, but as the British Museum as a whole.
So much about the concept, I also found the quality of the work impressive. The ceramics are the work of a highly trained craftsman, and it is such a welcome change that the ‘artist’ did the work himself. Not so the other media, such as metal casting, glass blowing or computer-controlled tapestry. It is interesting to see here that the contributors are all carefully acknowledged in the labels – not unknown craftsmen/women/machines at all.
The quality of curatorship is particularly high as well. One unfortunate consequence of this was frustration I felt since the (lavish) exhibition catalogue illustrates objects individually, whereas I would have appreciated a permanent record of the arrangement and interrelation of objects as displayed. This is an exhibition about the relationship between the objects on display, and between people and those objects. No souvenir of that is available (and Perry’s a fan of souvenirs).
This is a celebration of making, active creating, doing and producing – I found myself inwardly humming the tune to my childhood’s bossy TV show, Why Don’t You? But for someone who professes to value doing over theorizing, this is an immensely thought-provoking exhibition.