Tuesday 20 December 2011

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman: Grayson Perry at the British Museum

'Ooooh how I love those stout German stoneware jugs,' I crooned, leaning into the display case to admire every twirl of oak leaf and branch on the rough brown surface. Then other decorative motifs swam into my vision: bloody Alan Measles again. I'd been had. It wasn't a 'genuine' stout German pot, it was a genuine Grayson Perry, pretending to be one. Round the display case I went and found the ribbon's of text, stamped into the clay surface using old printing letters, setting out a ludicrous rhyme which I no longer recall, but it made me laugh out loud. The best thing about this show is that you often can't tell at a glance, which works are 'proper museum objects' and which are Grayson Perry's museum objects, and the other best thing about this show, if that's possible, is that it will make you laugh out loud many times, and it's not often you can say that about contemporary art, let's face it. Alan Measles, that ubiquitous teddy bear, cavorts with angels and devils, with soldiers and horses. He is a knight astride his mount, standard and shield at the ready, he is a votive object in a shrine, with erect penis with a flower in it, holding hands with Claire, dressed, as she so often is, in headscarf and A-line skirt. Both of these works are cast in metal but the shrine has a ceramic tile at the back, painted with the image of a female black smith. Perry uses iron for most of the metal work in this show- it is the material of the forge, of industry and of craft for industry, a concept Perry expresses well, not least in the first exhibit, one of his motorbikes, which is outside the gallery with a shrine on the back with another teddy bear in it.

The selection of the Museum's votive and spiritual objects is magnificent and Perry's works respond to  these objects effortlessly and work their way in among them, threading his own mad story of the life of  his god-bear and his attempt to establish himself as a contemporary deity. He encounters everything from religious tourism to celebrity, 24 hour news and social networking and scowls at all of it. The pots are as gorgeous and as funny as they always are, mixing that lucid graphic hand with layer upon layer of collaged imagery, dense and dark at times. The final piece of the show, the boat with the casts of crafted objects and the bottles of sweat, blood and tears lashed to its mast, is a fabulous object, (in all senses of the word,) cast in Iron, lyrical and mythical, utterly convincing and deeply eccentric all at once.

I had thought that Grayson Perry's best show to date was The Charms of Lincolnshire, where he created a collection of works responding to a rural, agricultural and domestic museum collection. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman continues and develops this theme but with a much greater emphasis on the talisman, the votive and the ritual object. It probably tops the earlier show. It's wonderful, moving and funny. Go and see it!