2 January 2012

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman - A personal response

By Rhys Lewis, 
Undergraduate student in Visual Culture, University of Brighton

I felt great anticipation and excitement on my journey from Brighton to London to visit The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. The concept of an artist such as Grayson Perry, renowned for his unmistakably flamboyant costumes and his often personal and humorous approach to the arts, working in collaboration with the British Museum, an institution renowned for its seriousness and commitment to its collection, conjures expectations of many tensions; tensions between museum policies and artistic freedom, cultural sensitivity and artistic appropriation, the opposing roles of artist and curator, not to mention the tensions between the historic artefacts from the museum’s stores, and the new artworks created by Perry, famed for commenting on contemporary social life and issues. 

In retrospect, just as the artist had intended, the journey to the exhibition really did feel like some sort of modern-day surreal pilgrimage, travelling to and through London to Bloomsbury, entering the famous British Museum with its impressive Greco-roman facade, through the great court and up the curving stairway to the temporary exhibition space, each section of the journey, seemingly more intense than the last, strengthening the anticipation as I travelled.

With anticipation comes expectation, but contrary to my expectations, the first thing I noticed when I entered the gallery was how traditional and “museum-like” the exhibition was; the objects were all placed in illuminated glass cases with individually allocated information panels, and large text panels on the wall for each section. The layout of the gallery dictated a definite route; through the exhibition and into the gift shop, with the gradually darkening colours on the gallery walls implying the idea of the journey or pilgrimage to the exhibition coming to an end. I suppose because Perry is considered such a ‘contemporary’ artist, and is known for working with such personal and socially relevant issues, such as his piece Dolls of Dungeness (2001) that directly responded to the events of 9/11, I expected a more interactive, innovative and free flowing exhibition technique.
Perry did explain his reasons for the exhibition layout in a lecture he gave at the British Museum called 'Grayson Perry: In His Own Words' - he said “I wanted the proper museum look, not the contemporary art look- it makes things look more meaningful.” I suppose what Perry is referring to here, is that by displaying objects in a traditionally “museum-like” way, they inherently assume a status of cultural importance or worth. I’m not sure which display technique makes things look more “meaningful”, but I am sure that his choice of exhibition layout made the visitors act in very particular ways. On all four occasions that I have visited the exhibition since its opening, people walked in a serious manner, with serious looks on their faces, speaking very quietly and trying hard not to break the accepted social code for gallery viewing. To me this seemed a strange way to act in an exhibition which is in many places very funny, very personal and tries hard to evoke real responses from its viewers.
Having spent the last year studying museums and representation as part of a visual culture degree at Brighton University, I entered the gallery with an arsenal of weaponry ready to denigrate and critique the exhibition, more than half expecting to find some blunders of culturally insensitive display or representation. To me, the idea of a western artist appropriating ethnographic and cultural artefacts, evokes the negative criticisms and reviews that similar attempts have attracted in the past, such as Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern held at the MOMA in 1984, where ‘primitive’ works were displayed alongside modern artworks, in order to show how non-European cultures had been a source of inspiration for modern western artists. But I knew this exhibition would be different to those past attempts in many ways. More than a re-presentation of ethnographic and cultural artefacts alongside Perry’s own works, this exhibition is an artwork in its own right, as Perry states in the exhibition catalogue “I am an artist, and this is principally an art exhibition.” This is also emphasised on the first text panel of the exhibition which reads “do not look too hard for meaning here... I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.” To me, these statements expose a key issue surrounding the exhibition and its execution: does artistic licence justify an artist like Grayson Perry coming into the British Museum, selecting items from a vast range of world cultures, many of which are highly sensitive and significant cultural and religious objects, and using them towards his own ends? It is a very ambitious objective considering the highly critical world of ethnographic museology, and surely with the appropriate consideration and respect for the objects’ original contexts, such an undertaking could produce some very interesting outcomes and juxtapositions. 

A good example of such a juxtaposition was a collection of medieval English pilgrim badges, and a collection of contemporary pin badges that are displayed in the ‘souvenirs of pilgrimage’ section of the exhibition. Describing the medieval badges, Perry writes “As well as conventional religious subjects, badges depicted satirical proverbs, erotic jokes and fantastic hybrid creatures. I enjoy badges for they bring home to us that for many, a pilgrimage was a holiday and involved a lot of fun as well as religious devotion” I felt that being able to see both collections simultaneously, allowed me to see the similarities between contemporary culture, and one that existed over six hundred years ago. I could see that, just as we do today, medieval cultures travelled far and wide to see a specific person or object, and wanted something not only to remind themselves of their experience, but as proof to others that they have completed such a venture. Moreover, they could be quite creative and humorous in how they decided to commemorate their pilgrimages; a far cry from the image of the serious medieval pilgrim that I presumed beforehand. 

An example of Grayson’s own work that I especially enjoyed was Hold Your Beliefs Lightly (2011), which is the artists own version of a West African Asafo flag. Traditionally used to distinguish between, but also insult rival military companies of the Gold Coast, Perry’s own version depicts his childhood teddy bear Alan Measles as a sort of saintly entity, embracing members of all religions into his arms, bearing the logo ‘hold your beliefs lightly’. The piece offers a facetious twist on the tradition of Asafo flags, by taking something usually associated with military segregation, and using it for the promotion of peace. However, there are a couple of items on display at the exhibition that I found quite problematic. 

One such example was the display of a Boli power figure from the Bamana community in Mali, included in the ‘Magick’ section of the exhibition. Boli are sacred figures created by members of men’s power associations amongst the Bamana of West Africa. Boli often represent bovine figures, and are believed to embody the spiritual powers of society. Made using organic matter, the construction and possession of the Boli ensures that the power association can maintain social control within their community.  Perry writes about the object; “As soon as I saw this object I knew I must include it in this show. For me it possesses a raw potency that seems to hark back to the very beginnings of art. It also seems quite modern in its pared down form. It seems to vibrate with a disturbing magical force put there by the people who made it. A modern artist can also be a bit of a witch doctor, having the ability to transform ordinary materials into something significant...” There is no doubt that this object is spiritually significant and may seem ‘mystical’ to many, but I think the way in which Perry has described the object using words such as ‘raw potency’, ‘disturbing magical force’ and ‘witch doctor’, and giving very little (if any) contextual information, further exoticizes and mystifies the object, continuing a legacy of misrepresentation and misunderstanding of non-western objects in western museums. Of course, Perry’s own artistic objectives are at play here, and I don’t expect a full object biography or elaborate essay explaining the complete context of the object concerned, but considering the role of the British Museum as a provider of knowledge to the public, and also the fact this is could be the first and only time that some of these objects are displayed in the museum, I would have welcomed brief, general description of the object’s uses and context. 

Elsewhere, an earring still attached to part of a human ear attracted my attention. The display of human remains in museums has always been a contentious subject, and this example is no exception. The earring is pinned up in a glass cabinet alongside other objects including a coffin containing the artist’s ponytail. The ear and earring are displayed just as any other object would be, with a basic information panel saying ‘Ear and Earring, origin and date unknown, gold and human remains, 4x8cm, British Museum.’ Inevitably, Perry can only work with the information provided by the museum, and having made his intentions as an artist evident from the outset, I would not expect him to take on the role of a researcher or historian. But no obvious distinction is made between this and the other objects in order to imply the potential sensitivity surrounding it, and no attempt has been made to draw attention to the fact that this is a part of a human being, that has potentially undergone great misfortune to lose both ear and earring.

Although I have found issue here with two items from the museum stores that are on display at the exhibition, I believe there is one particular piece of Grayson’s own work that is to be highly commended. Head of a Fallen Giant is a bronze sculpture of a human skull, measuring 40x50x35 cm, made by Perry in 2008. The grey-green colour of the sculpture gives an antique look, while the many imprints of objects such as tourist magnets, coins, seals and flags into the skull give it an almost futuristic or cyborg-like look, collectively creating a conflict between historic and contemporary aesthetic styles. The object is aesthetically interesting, but strikes me as especially important because of the issues surrounding colonialism and empire that the piece addresses. Amongst many other things imprinted into the skull one can see a crucifix, royal and imperial seals, stamps, pound symbols, the royal flag of England, the Union Jack, profiles of Elizabeth I, tourist art and magnets depicting things such as the Palace of Westminster, Tower Bridge and a London bus, most of which refer specifically to British culture and symbols of Britain as a colonial empire. Piercing the top of the skull are various types of screws and nails, on the ends of which are imprinted more signs and symbols. Alongside the sculpture Perry writes “there has been much debate about what exactly is Englishness. We struggle to define it. I wanted to make something that looked like an ethnographic artefact that was about England. At once mystical and banal, this is the skull of a decaying maritime superpower. Like a World War Two mine washed up on the beach encrusted with the boiled down essence of empire in the form of tourist tat.” By combining the symbols of empire with a skull, it is as if the artist is making a statement about the death or end of the British Empire as well as all the negative connotations that empire implies. To me, the “Giant” in the work’s title refers directly to the British Empire, and perhaps Perry is condemning here the skewed power relations that allowed culturally significant objects to be collected and brought to Britain during colonial times. In an exhibition that far transcends many of these items’ original contexts, this piece serves as an important reminder of the obscure and unjust circumstances under which many of the items in the British Museum were acquired. 

Although I found problems with issues such as the gallery layout, some object descriptions and the display of human remains, I highly commend this exhibition and believe that it is a very successful and creative enterprise. To create and curate such an ambitious exhibition is no easy feat, and takes great courage and determination. Through displaying items from the museum’s stores alongside his own works, Perry demands that we view these items with a new perspective. To me, this made the museum’s objects seem more significant, me to see affinities between my own culture as presented by Perry’s works, and the various other cultures displayed at the exhibition. Of course, I am not implying that these objects need a western curator in order to produce significance, nor am I suggesting that the significance derived from these objects whilst displayed in this exhibition is of greater importance than that of their original contexts. However, as a western viewer in the centre of London, looking at objects from cultures that are relatively unfamiliar to me, this exhibition was extremely successful in breaking down the social barriers between a western society, and those cultures whose objects are on display. I won’t deny that this approach to exhibiting ethnographic material can cause problems when it comes to obtaining accurate contextual information concerning the objects on display, indeed the idea of a single western man having the power and control over displaying such material is an inherently Eurocentric one, with all manner of negative connotations. But I believe it crucial that museums and artists develop new ways of presenting ethnographic material that is appealing to a modern day society, and I would recommend this exhibition to anyone that is seeking a collaboration that takes a brave step forward into a new age of ethnographic museum practice.

Grayson Perry's 'The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' is on display at the British Museum until 19 February 2012

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