Friday, 7 November 2014


NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY in collaboration with Channel 4
WHO ARE YOU? runs until March 15th

I love the National Portrait Gallery, just off Trafalgar Square, but rarely step upstairs into the company of mostly elderly, white, middle and upper class men who inhabit Gallery 1, a serene space celebrating 20th and 21st century portraiture. 

But last Sunday when I visited - following the trail on the map above - the gallery was transformed. Fourteen works of Perry's art mingled in among the usual portraits. The image below, No 3, is poor, nor is it the one I would have chosen if circumstances had been different. There just happened to be a temporary gap in the thronging crowd which I seized for a moment before being asked to move along. 

No 3. Melanie, Georgina and Sarah,
These statues were inspired by 3 contestants at a Miss Plus Size International Competition in Somerset. Perry's 3-part Channel 4 TV programme which accompnied this exhibiion recorded their painful struggle for acceptance – from others and from themselves - and their growing confidence and pride. In Perry's words it was “a massive coming-out experience “ Some saw themselves as taking the first steps in a struggle for acceptance which every oppressed identity - from suffragettes to civil rights - has had to undergo. 

The ladies' curvaceous and capacious bosoms and bellies remind us of religious sculptures and drawings which in days of capricious harvests celebrated fertility in people, crops and animals over thousands of years.  But now obesity is within the reach of millions. We know it can first damage and then destroy the very life these women embody.

The exhibit which has attracted most press  attention is No 9 The Huhne Vase. Chris Huhne, former MP, served a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice in persuading his former wife to take the blame for a speeding offence.

The vase is patterned with infidelity and fraud: the personalised number plate of the car in which he committed his offence, and a penis, a reminder of events which led to his downfall. Perry then smashed the pot and repaired it using gold. People have asked why was Huhne not more crushed by the end of his political career?  And how many mere cabinet ministers ever got to sit for a portrait by Grayson Perry on Channel 4? 

Other works were inspired by the Jesus Army; a white gay couple with a mixed-race son; a couple living with Alzheimer's; Rylan Clark, an X-Factor finalist;  a young woman Islamic convert; a family who see their deafness as a culture, not a disability; and  a group of Loyalists from Northern Ireland. Perhaps as interesting as the art works, what you can see on TV is Grayson Perry's face as he meets each person: kind, relaxed, assured, open, fiercely intelligent. He takes on concepts like fame, religion, taste, class and they sparkle with colour and life and ideas. 

A final word from Mark Lawson's blog the posted 22.10.14 
'Having already won the Turner prize, Grayson Perry deserves at least a Bafta shortlisting for Who Are You? (Wednesday, 10pm, Channel 4), in which he succeeds in refreshing two over-familiar types of TV – the talkshow and the art doc – by breaking both moulds and recasting them as a new shape; a sort of chat-art show'. 

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