Friday, 7 October 2011


British Museum 

The most excoriating and devastating art review I’ve read this year appears in today’s (6.10.11) Evening Standard. A sting in every sentence. The art critic Brian Sewell is writing about The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an exhibition at the British Museum curated  by Grayson Perry. A more considered writer is Adrian Searle in today’s The Guardian. Links to both are below.

I can’t blog about anything in the Exhibition because you have to pay to go in (the rest of the British Museum is free), and it’s one of my rules that the art I select has to be free to view.

However you can see Perry’s combined motor bike-and-shrine-with-a-teddy-in-it for nothing. It’s standing on one of the landings on the curly stairs up to the restaurant above the central Court. It’s there to tempt people to part with £10 to see the show.

Last year Perry drove round Germany on his specially commissioned motorbike on a mission of peace. He explains in the catalogue that in his childhood ‘the Germans were the default enemy, and so they became a metaphor for all that was bad in my experience. Alan (Alan Measles, the bear) and I needed to make peace with our old imagined adversary’. Perry claims that he has worshipped Alan Measles since the early 1960s and, as it was too precious to exhibit, three other teddies have the chance to be on display a month each as stand ins.  

Perry, winner of the Turner prize in 2003, is best known for controversy (he received the prize dressed as Claire, his female alter ego), and for his ceramic pots. From afar they look traditional enough, but as you draw near you find they’re covered in delicate drawings, handwritten texts, photographs and glazes alluding to dark, even obscene subjects.  The shock is the greater because a ceramic pot is such an innocent medium, associated with domesticity and elegance, life-giving water and wine.

The exhibition Perry was allowed to curate features an eclectic selection of objects in the museum’s collection drawn from around the world, plus some of his own work. It is said to be full of wonderful things. He claims to want to pay tribute to the anonymous minds and bodies which made them. But Searle points out that it's not as simple as that. He’s also interrogating the museum’s authority: he's asking why ‘his artist’s deeply intuitive way of organising objects (is) any less valid than the museum's scholarly, supposedly objective systems of classification’.

'Part of my role as an artist,' writes Perry in the catalogue 'is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant'. Is the exhibition a comment on injustice and hypocrisy? Or is shallow, vulgar and too clever by half? Perry disarms his critics by saying ‘I'm absolutely aware of the bitter irony of it being called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman when it's in fact a celebrity artist's vanity project’.

The only way forward is to pay up and decide for oneself.

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