Monday, 31 October 2011
The tomb of the unknown craftsman
So from Unknown Stuntmen, to Unknown Craftsmen, I visited Grayson Perry's exhibition at the British Museum. The British Museum allowed Perry unlimited access to its archive, from which he has selected a series of objects from across continents and time periods. He has then presented these objects alongside his own work, much of which has been specifically made for the exhibition, building on the elements of craft he found in the archive and manipulating them to communicate our present.
One of the best things about the presentation of this exhibition is how clear and helpful the notes are throughout, giving the visitor just the right amount of information, without prescribing a specific reading of the object in front of you. It is also the artist, Grayson Perry himself, who speaks through the notes, taking away any facade of 'objectivity' and reinforcing the very personal nature of the curation.
At the entrance to exhibition, he tells us that he is an artist, not a historian, emphasising that what we are seeing has no nationalist, ideological or political agenda. This is of course an important thing to set straight in advance, because it is key that we enter into the space he has created without a set of constructed ideas about time, history and geography. Rather, we are urged to rely entirely on our imaginations, emotions and, to a large extent, our memories.
In doing so, however, Grayson Perry is therefore making some very clear connections to post-modernist historical theory, who encouraged historians to re-think the 'craft' of thinking about the past in exactly these ways. Moreover, by drawing upon the historic myth of the 'Unknown Soldier' in the title of the exhibition, he makes direct allusions to some very specific aspects of history.
Importantly, the objects are not grouped according to region or date, but loosely around themes. This allows many of them to be seen in extraordinarily new lights an 'frees' them from their historicity. For example, one of my favourites was an clay moulded sculpture (cant remember the date but think it was around 1400 or so ) which looked, amazingly, like man's first exploration of shape and form, and simultaneously could have been a modernist sculpture.
The theme of navigation is cleverly highlighted with some very odd maps from the 1500s. A map of 'eastern hemisphere' looked totally incomprehensible and like some kind of curious mechanical system, reminding us of the fundamental need for humans to systemise and externalise their internal methods of thinking about movement and navigation, whether emotional or physical.
The pinnacle of the exhibition arrived, for me, in the pilgrim traveller figures that 'could be our parents' and the 'ship' of life navigating us through a journey towards the end. Each of these sculptures was made in industrial iron, and laden with intricately formed figures of artefacts and objects that clutter our daily lives. For example, mobile telephones and even 'blood, sweat and tears' contained in chemical-like bottles. At the centre, core of the ship was a flint axe head from 1200, weighing down the middle. What was most fascinating for me was how this ship, which takes up a big part of the last room on our journey through Perry's imagined history, resonated an 'aura' of temporality. There was a real sense that this art work contained everything, totality, experience and age and I dont think I have ever felt that quite so strongly from a piece of sculpture before. It made me think of Walter Benjamin and Emmanuelle Kant, who wrote of this very subject; history as an experience and the collection of history through old objects and 'tat'.
On the subject of the contemporary, Perry was rather too judgemental for my liking, frequently casting cynicism on our use of modern tools such as smartphones, Facebook and our interest in celebrity. I felt that this was slightly unbalanced, considering the reverently non-judgemental attitude he took to the past. In the case of sex and the presentation of women, he seemed to suggest that our current concerns about the sexualisation of the media could be undermined by looking at its presence in the past, but I didn't really buy this. He seemed to be saying that we shouldn't judge the past or make any criticisms of it.
Whether he styles himself as an artist, craftsman or historian, Grayson Perry's exhibition was hugely inspiring from any of these angles because it most relates to human experience and the core of our sensuality that makes us want to style, to make and to craft. I would highly recommend it.