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

In Exhibitions on February 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm

This weekend, I visited two exhibitions at the British Museum. If you know me, you’ll know that’s very out of character – the BM is not usually my thing. This is even more so when it comes to art exhibitions – if I visit the Tate Modern I’ll blow through the whole building in 30 minutes, giftshop included. But I’d heard great things about Grayson Perry’s exhibition (consistently selling out weeks in advance), and I thought I’d give it a go.

I was pleasantly surprised by the whole day, but Perry in particular was a hit with me, and I know exactly why. It had a sense of humour. The Turner-prize winning artist (who usually specialises in ceramics, but also dabbles in other whatnottery) is an outstandingly flamboyant character, as demonstrated by the bejewelled, pink motorbike (or “pope-mobile”) that greets you at the exhibition door (see below). The basic idea behind the exhibition is taking inspiration from the work of unknown craftsmen – the thousands (if not, millions) of men and women who have put untold time into creating the collections of the BM. Perry has looked at central themes, such as pilgrimage, and taken historical objects from all around the world and put them on display in here. The winning formula is that he has posted his own creations alongside them, and related them to the 21st century.

A central thread tying his work together is the great god Alan Measles, Grayson Perry’s teddy bear, for whom the pope-mobile motorbike was designed.  Measles is the god of Perry’s imaginary world, and he is celebrated in this exhibition as if that world has come to life, complete with a long and complex past. There are shrines and votives to Alan Measles, statues and guardians in his image, and (my favourite), a depiction of him as a “Guru of Doubt”, doling out advice to fellow deities. His advice, and a central message of the whole exhibition, is simple, but sage: “Hold your beliefs lightly”.

I laughed out loud on more than one occasion in this exhibition. Perry has a healthy awareness of how absurd the life of Alan Measles is, but he gently shows us that, actually, it’s not nearly as absurd as the real world. The one thing that made me a little sad is that Alan Measles himself is not on display. There was a competition for beary-stand ins, however, and you can get your fill of the long-suffering Alan Measles here, at his blog. He’s bloody fantastic, I think. As is Perry (who Measles refers to as his chief spokesperson on earth). The pieces are great fun to look at, but genuinely beautiful. I know precisely less than nothing about art, but I really enjoyed it. That may be a damning indictment of Perry in light of my moronic lack of art knowledge, but the constant selling out of tickets suggests that if it is, at least the rest of London is being similarly stupid.

The exhibition costs £10 to get in, and is already selling out ahead of its closure at the end of the month. There are, however, 300 tickets available on the door every day, and if you get there before noon (earlier to be safe at weekends) then you should be able to blag one of those. If you’re a Museums Association Member (or you’re lucky enough to work for a National Museum), you can get in to the BM’s exhibitions gratis. I would have said that this exhibition is easily worth £10 though – something you won’t catch me saying often about the BM. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman has just had its run extended to the 26th February 2012 – if you’re in London, I wholeheartedly recommend that you go. The BM are unlikely to make you laugh this much again for a long while…


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