Grayson Perry RA's exhibition at the British Museum opens today. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
features objects chosen by Perry from the museum's collection, alongside new works by the artist that include drawings, embroidered wall hangings and the ceramics for which he is best known.
The exhibition is a memorial to the anonymous men and women who created many of the museum's treasures, which span two million years of human civilisation. It’s also a tour of Perry's creative imagination. He has picked objects that resonate with him and that reflect recurring motifs in his work, such as shrines, pilgrimages, creation myths and totemic figures. Some are fascinatingly grotesque (an earring with part of the ear still attached); some are ancient and some are modern, such as as a Hello Kitty pilgrim hand-towel from 2000.
"I was very nervous about putting my objects up from all these marvellous things from different cultures, whether it would stack up. But I’m actually quite pleased that it does, on the whole. They don’t look too much like usurpers being brought in here," Perry says.
"I’ve chosen objects that reflect the same sort of ideas and aesthetics that I’ve got in my own work. And it’s an unconscious process, that’s what I like about it, the dialogue is purely visual sometimes."
Perry's childhood teddy bear Alan Measles, whom the artist describes as the god of his imaginary world, appears in his work in various guises. It's no surprise that Perry's selection of museum objects includes religious artefacts such as a figurine of the Egyptian god Bes (for more on Bes, see our slideshow).
"Teddies are like relics," Perry says. "They’re no different from other religious artefacts in that they’re invested with emotion and they’re given a character by the owner. When you’re a child you project your own human qualities on it. You’ll be an angry teddy, or you’ll be a friendly teddy, or a daft teddy or whatever.”
Perry's own work has sometimes taken on the guise of ritualistic objects. Take Artist's Robe
(2004), for example - the elaborate shamanic robe that featured in the RA's exhibition GSK Contemporary – Aware: Art Fashion Identity.
Decorated with images of eyes, it suggested the heraldry of guilds and the almost mystical role of the artist in society.
Perry was recently appointed a Royal Academician. "We’re a cabal of dark priests," he says, grinning.
"I was a bit disappointed there wasn’t a secret room where we all had to go and put on robes and sacrifice at the top of the RA to the gods of contemporary art."
Does he enjoy the sense of tradition that comes from being a Member of the Academy?
"I do, because I think we’re shy of tradition, we’re very easily embarrassed in this country and I think it’s good. We need heraldry, we need ritual - it comes out of human need. And people say, 'oh it’s ridiculous' but at the same time most artists would probably say yes if they were asked.
"One of the central themes of the show, in a way, is me as a contemporary artist. I come from a tribe where the identity of the maker is absolutely core and yet this show is called ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ so immediately, that’s a kind of challenge. It's a commentary on the contemporary art tribe and their value system and that kind of shamanic power in the belief of the unique artwork made by the God-given talented individual.
"I suppose I’m challenging that and playing with it, because I’m in the privileged position to have been elected one of those people – formally and informally. This show is a celebration of objects. We’re looking through my eyes but all the time we’re looking at the beauty and interest in these objects. That’s what I wanted to celebrate."
- In the audio slideshow above, Grayson Perry introduces a selection of objects from the exhibition.