Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

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Grayson Perry The Rosetta Vase.jpg
The Rosetta Vase, 2011
Grayson Perry with 'Kenilworth AM1'

‘I came to be outraged’, ‘I had a free ticket’, and ‘There was such a buzz about it on Twitter’, are just some of the imagined quotes from future visitors to this show, newly painted on a jar entitled ‘You Are Here’. The maker, Grayson Perry, describes it as ‘the pot equivalent of a reality TV show’.

In other words, he wants you to leave negative preconceptions and bilious jibes at the entrance, where he also confounds expectations by installing a handsomely customised motorbike – not the sort of thing you normally find at the British Museum (but neither is a cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning ceramicist). A lack of ‘fun’ stuff, like cars and boats, apparently disappointed the six-year-old Perry on his first visit here, yet as an adult he’s paying homage to the place by putting on a surprisingly respectful display of the museum’s artefacts, punctuated by his own handmade trinkets, shrines and faux-naïve art objects.

Everything feels proper and acquiescent, from the atmospheric lighting and neat wall labels to the climate-controlled vitrines – even for pieces by Perry that don’t need temperature regulation. Of course, he’s putting on an aura of dry respectability to slip in the odd jarring note – a lock of his own ’80s ponytail or a naughty cape embroidered with ejaculating members. The didactic curation also allows him to get away with wince-making juxtapositions of low-art curios such as a Hello Kitty hand towel next to an unsavoury Egyptian headscarf featuring the (male) leaders of the Arab world. You can almost taste the bittersweet tang of parody.

Still, there’s more than just age-old hierarchies going down the swanny here. By unearthing a little of the BM’s underbelly, through a sexy Mesapotamian carving or a scary zoomorphic fetish from Mali, Perry gently insinuates his perversions upon the institution, from within. He lowers the tone with a smile, through the humour and double-take found in a pair of ancient-looking pilgrims beladen with mobile phones, iPods and hand guns, for instance.

Perry would be all at sea without the examples found in BM, he seems to suggest, in version after version of handicrafted totems, talismans or deities, but it’s still his proliferous pots that set him apart from these antecedents and the eight million other things at the BM’s disposal.

The back-stories to the show, involving his god-like teddy bear Alan Measles and various personal pilgrimages, are but tools of deflection (like Perry’s piss-taking) for deeper enquiries: about his father, about artistry and even the foundations of civilisation. These sound like big claims for a self-confessed prankster at the gates of serious art, but Perry’s ‘Map of Truths and Beliefs’ is every bit as detailed and fascinating as the Tibetan tankas and medieval tapestries he’s lampooning. The journey ends at Perry’s stunning boat-shaped coffin, ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen’, but takes in a whole fleet of history’s unappreciated and unsigned along the way. This makes him the equivalent of a reality TV figure such as Simon Cowell or Charles Saatchi, resurrecting the careers of those who weren’t blessed with patrons or famous signatures first time around. Oh, the irony.


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Grayson Perry is a joy, and this is such an appropriate concept for a show for him. He's brought colour and humour to the Museum, and in doing so has brought out some incredibly thoughtful themes and new perspectives. Also it's SO refreshing to have such unpretentious descriptions from the artist next to works - usually it's self-important nonsense. May he never have to return to a white cube!


Excellent, intelligent show. Interesting to watch other people slowly start to smile, as they 'get' Perry's wit. Some thoughtful juxtapositions of old & new - well worth seeing, and free to members

jane farrell

Absolutely loved it! A very clever and talented guy. Loved the irony, humour and insight-great to leave an art exhibition laughing, and for all the right reasons.


Loved the juxtaposition of the museum's artefacts with Perry's witty art

Liam O'Farrell

Perry has placed his own modern works amongst objects found in the collection of The British Museum. You will also find the conventional low light and ubiquitous solemn feel of any other exhibition of ancient artefacts one might see, and at a distance, you cannot differentiate his works from those of the museum. He makes no apology for this, he makes the most of this mix and match approach. It takes you by surprise because on closer inspection, you see Perry’s unique style in pottery, sculpture and tapestry. He has a crisp, keen eye and a rapier wit in his work, though still maintaining an intellect and insight which makes one take it all the more seriously. More on my blog if you are interested