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Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Friday 11 November 2011
Words Spindle

‘A memorial to the anonymous skilled men and women who have crafted the wonders of history…’

I demand you all make like pilgrims and journey to Central London to pay homage to Grayson Perrys new show at The British Museum. ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ has seen Perry having a nose in the darkest depths of The British Museums basements, lugging out buried treasures to juxtapose against his own creations which are reactions to his findings.

On entry a text panel pleads you not to ‘look hard for meaning’ in the exhibition; academics beware! Perry is after all, an artist not a historian .These objects have been resuscitated; taken out of the mortuary and placed in the hands of a British eccentric. You are invited into an informal ‘journey through his mind’ as he pays respect to the countless, nameless craftsman of bygone eras.

For those that know of Grayson Perry, you may already be aware that he is a Turner Prize winning transvestite potter from Chelmsford, who is inseparable from his surrogate father Alan Measles (a tattered teddy bear of a talisman).  Alan Measles actually features as Perrys personal deity in this exhibition, which has a running autobiographical streak – he is exploring the worlds culture as well as his own, while questioning what it means to look at an object or visit a museum.

The idea that museums/galleries are the modern day equivalent to temples and contemporary art the new ‘religion’ is an idea that Perry finds fascinating. He sees the British Museum as a place where one can encounter the world, rather than a harbour for stolen goods. However, knowing the title ‘The tomb of the unknown craftsman’, is multi dimensional, and knowing of Perrys dissatisfaction with the contemporary art space, I feel this could be a subtle reference to the notion that museums are where objects go to die.

Exploring themes of sex (featuring the ‘last taboo of the erect penis’), gender (for obvious reasons), childhood, religion and contemporary culture (or lack thereof) in his usual subversive and satirical manner, scrawled naively upon curvaceous vessels. Fiction and fact have been indelibly inscribed upon these materials; from images of Perry’s childhood games where Alan measles is the benign dictator of his imagination to a more serious salutation of the ghosts of the unknown craftsman whose creations have given the world a rich tapestry of visual culture.

The epicentre of the exhibition is the cast iron ship. Weighed down by the blood, sweat and tears of past anonymous makers and containing the metaphorical tomb, in which a piece of flint (the tool used by the first craftsman) has been laid to rest.

Unlike the church-like-holier-than-thou-monstrosity that is The British Museum, once you get past the fanciful, garishly camp motorbike aka Alan Measles religious conveyance visitors will be humbled by the artists attempt to bring a humane element to the exhibition. There is no encrypted message, you will not have to wait for enlightenment to dawn to understand the point of the show and you shall not be blinded by a pure white interior.

Grayson Perry: The tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
The British Museum
6th October 2011 – 19th February 2012