Sunday, 16 October 2011

Grayson Perry Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

As the only person working in a craft medium to be taken seriously by the art world and having won the Turner Prize Grayson Perry is often outspoken, entertaining and thought provoking. He famously said the Art world found it easier to accept the fact that he was a transvestite than that he made pots. He wrote a well argued piece in 2005 describing the contemporary craft scene as "a refuge for artists who play it safe"
He does have a lot of respect though for well made traditional craftwork and so I was quite excited when I heard that he would be having a show at the British Museum titled "the tomb of the unknown craftsman" This surely I thought references Soetsu Yanagi's great book "The unknown Craftsman" and given that the British Museum itself is a temple to the best unknown craftsmen of ages past from around the world I was expecting an homage to those craftspeople, perhaps something that brought the objects to life again.
On my way into the museum I paused in room 24 which is themed "living and dying" it's a room I have spent time in before and has magnificent artifacts varying from Inuit hunting implements and clothing to one of the wonderful Easter Island sculptures. Here are just a few of the wonderful items on display. A Maori food bowl, the carving on the underside particularly special. 

An axe from the Solomon Islands early 20th C. Clearly an English Kent pattern head I have re-handled many of these but always in rather more utilitarian fashion.

 Solomon islands food bowl.

 Haida carving.

and moving into the great court a magnificent Haida house frontal pole  

the Haida people and all North West Coast carvers are truly one of the great woodworking cultures of the world, the design and craftsmanship are just wonderful, look at the toolmarks here, no sandpaper, a thousand precise cuts with sharp tools.

 So back to Grayson at the entrance to the exhibition is his glorious AM1 motorcycle.

 Inside we were not allowed to take photos. Did I find my unknown craftspeople brought to life? Well sadly no. I did find a good retrospective of Grayson's work and dotted alongside it were pieces of work from the museums collection which felt like they were there to give understanding, comparison and credibility to Grayson's pieces, I didn't really get any feeling that Grayson's works were in any way helping me to better understand the museum pieces. The museum pieces had very minimal interpretation, so for instance of my favourite pieces was labled

"Bonnet, Samoa, early 1800's Turtle shell and cotton"

I learned nothing of the context the object came from, the people who made it, when such an incredible thing was worn etc. maybe that is the job of a museum not an art exhibition. Amongst Grayson's work it was interesting to see a wide range of his big pots but I was most taken by his cast iron sculptures and two in particular from 2007 titled our father and our mother, strange pilgrim figures with their worldly goods on their backs. The tomb itself was also a large cast iron sculpture of a ship adorned with casts of objects from the BM collections, some how it didn't grab me, I went back out for another look at the Haida pole.

Maybe what I like best about Grayson is actually his writing, I enjoy the blog allegedly written by his teddy bear/god figure Alan Measles often ireverant and thought provoking. This is what he had to say at the end of the exhibition on Craftsmanship.

"Craftsmanship is often equated with precision but I think there is more to it. I feel it is more important to have a long and sympathetic hands-on relationship with materials. A relaxed, humble, ever-curious love of stuff is central to my idea of being an artist. An important quality of great art of the past was the pure skill in the artists use of materials. In celebrating craftsmanship I also salute artists, well most of them."

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