By Christine Lewis
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The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

This article is over 10 years, 1 months old
The British Museum until 19 February
Issue 364

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Grayson Perry’s new exhibition, is a combination of new works alongside selected pieces from all parts of the British Museum’s collection. It is a celebration of decorative art and of all those makers, builders and unnamed individuals who have made beautiful objects throughout history.

Yet nothing about Perry or his work fits neatly into any category – from his female alter-ego Claire, to his imagining of a world where his 50 year old teddy is god, to his pots and tapestries, he constantly challenges our assumptions about gender, art, creativity and society.

The audience is led through his installation as if they were on a pilgrimage where fantasy and reality, the ancient and the contemporary, the beautiful and the grotesque fuse. Though his works are beautifully crafted, on closer inspection they often include caustic and satirical observations on contemporary life. Perry’s down-to-earth humour disguises a darker worldview.

As Perry explains, “A lot of my work has always had a guerrilla tactic, a stealth tactic. I want to make something that lives with the eye as a beautiful piece of art, but on closer inspection, a polemic or an ideology comes out of it.”

The first pot I saw when I entered the exhibition depicts images of visitors to the show and their imagined comments: “I needed to have my negative prejudices confirmed,” “It’s on my A-level syllabus, my teacher told me to come,” “I just wanted to satisfy myself that I am more clever than this charlatan.”

Another pot depicts images of colonialism and slavery. A tapestry illustrates a fantasy world consisting of imaginary characters representing raw emotions, innocent reason, tradition and the contemporary world, located in a landscape of graveyards belonging to places of pilgrimage like Auschwitz, Jerusalem, Stonehenge, Nashville and Hiroshima.

Alongside these Perry juxtaposes beautiful pieces from the British Museum including Polynesian fetishes, portable shrines from Japan, Buddhist votive offerings and delicate embroidery, organised into themes of the sacred, magic, sexuality and gender. He draws attention to the fact that people throughout history have attached meanings of passion and pilgrimage to objects: “God and cuddly toys have a lot in common – both are imaginary characters we project our feelings onto.” He suggests that we “hold our beliefs lightly”. Placed together his work lends new life and meaning to these museum pieces.

The shadow of imperialism is never far away. The figure of a man dragging his wife by the hair is transformed from a historical totem into a satirical comment by the Haitian craftsman on English behaviour. The beauty of an ancient gold earring is tempered by the fact that it is still attached to the owner’s mummified ear. Is it a war trophy?

There is a cheeky irreverence, joy and honesty to Perry’s work. The exhibition has been described as an act of love to the museum but it also pays homage to the objects displayed and their unknown makers.

Perry feels the art world is out of touch with ordinary people. With this exhibition he manages to make art accessible and popular. He warns us not to look for too much meaning in his work – he would rather leaves it to the audience to make their own meanings. Good art doesn’t have to provide the right answers – sometimes it’s more important to raise the right questions.

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