Hold your beliefs lightly.
Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British museum is one of the most fascinating shows I have ever seen. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it before. It is a chance to walk into his world and see not only some stunningly beautiful new work of his own but also his own selection of artefacts from one of the world’s great museums alongside it. All of them have been personally chosen to reflect his own interests, passions, sources, and obsessions. He has called it “a journey into my own mind” and this is exactly what it is. You can get to know him from the choices that he has made and what you find is very likeable, deeply interesting and moving but also funny and charming. There is nothing pompous or self serving here, nothing didactic. All we are asked to do is look and enjoy. Putting the show together has clearly been a labour of love for Grayson and his respect and admiration for the artists and craftsmen and women who have gone before him shines out from every room. The people who made these objects are mostly forgotten but their work is their memorial and in this exhibition he has allowed them to live again. All of the objects are interesting and often beautiful in their own right but when you see them in the context of what they tell us about the work and influences of the single living artist who has chosen them they gain an extra layer of meaning, providing an insight into the mind of one of the most talented and original artists working in Britain today. Yes, he is that good.
The new work which is on show is only going to become more fascinating as it ages and comes to take its place in history alongside the items from the collection. The contemporary references woven into the pots alongside the wonderful glazes and seductive decoration will form a snapshot of contemporary life which will slowly recede into the distance while the pots remain, a glittering record of a frozen moment in time. The most beautiful of them, for me at least, is The Near Death and Enlightenment of Alan Measles, which is a celebration of the fact that we can find a new beginning, even after the horror of the past has almost destroyed us. Alan Measles is Grayson’s god and alter ego, his childhood teddy, a guru who is there to allow him to transcend his own past with a combination of beauty and humour. It also allows all of us, whether we have faith or not, to look at the ideas and icons of religious belief and consider them in the abstract. Alan Measles himself is not present, of course, but his image recurs throughout the show and his personality remains its guiding light via that of Grayson Perry himself.
As well as the pots there are textiles and sculpture. A Map of Truths and Beliefs is a huge tapestry celebrating the world’s pilgrim places in vivid colour. A smaller tapestry bearing Alan Measle’s mantra “hold your beliefs lightly” is set alongside an equally joyous Asafo banner from Ghana where heads are being cut off with great abandon and seeming delight. Juxtapositions like this are constantly pulling you up short as you walk round, making you think, smile or wonder.
The two most moving new pieces in the show, for me at least, are Our Mother and Our Father, two figures who seem to stand for all those human beings who have gone before us and borne so much suffering so stoically. The mother is weighed down with her load of packages and belongings as she carries everything she has with her while looking tenderly at her baby. It is as moving a portrait of a mother and child as I have seen, and there are many as it is a universal subject that has been looked at many times over the generations.
The central piece of the show, a fitting climax, is the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself. A huge brown iron ship, heavy with symbolism and decoration, carries a prehistoric flint axe at its heart. This ship is a culmination of everything that has gone before, a monument to all those unnamed craftsmen who have worked and lived for thousands of years since that flint was carved and used, and it has real presence and authority. As you look at it you feel that you have come home. The theme of pilgrimage runs throughout the exhibition, from the stunning motor bike outside the entrance on which Grayson and Alan made their own pilgrimage to the tiny pilgrim badges, sacred objects, maps and art works inside which you have been looking at, and when you see the ship it feels like journeys end.
This exhibition says a lot for Grayson Perry both as an artist and as a human being. It has been put together with great love and honesty and shows that his own work has lasting power and beauty when set against objects and art from the past. You simply couldn’t produce a show like this unless both your own work and you yourself were worthy of it, you would be found out. He is certainly worthy of it.