Combating mediocrity in the modern world…

Grayson Perry’s Antiquarian Motorcycle Helmet

I had a spare few hours a couple of days ago. I was in the City with my wife and the British Museum was nearby, so we thought we’d go and have a bit of a nosey.

My wife and I live fairly close to the centre of London. Far enough away to not be stifled by the incessantly fast pace of life, but not too far to make a jolly jaunt feasible. We’ve lived down here for a couple of years and never seem to make the time to DO stuff in the city. There are some of the world’s greatest art galleries, museums and theatres on our doorstep, so this year we have decided to make a conscious effort to take advantage of it all.

I’d never been to the British Museum before. I vaguely remember going to somewhere similar when I was very very young and lived in Northern Ireland. It was either in Dublin or Belfast, I can’t remember which, and I was terrified by the embalmed body of a mummy in one of the cases. So terrified that I had nightmares about it that night. Nothing else stands out in that faded memory, so it was with almost completely fresh eyes that I visited.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer size of the building. Its great Corinthian columns which hold up the edifice could have hewn from rock by giants. The main entrance doors were absolutely dwarfed by the magnificence of the front façade. Once inside, I was in the central hall (The Great Court) which is absolutely cavernous. It is dominated by the museums’ Reading Room which is a building-within-a-building. We bought our tickets for the Grayson Perry exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, and wandered up the stairs on the outside of the reading room and into the gallery.

The first exhibit is the motorbike which Perry had custom-built for his pilgrimage with Alan Measles (his teddy bear which was given to help his recovery from a childhood illness). This is more of a metaphorical banner for the exhibition than an interesting piece in itself: an avatar for Perry’s chatroom persona. Once inside, the first piece is Perry’s “You are Here” vase, and the usual description board with Perry’s statement of intent as curator of the exhibition. “You are Here” is a witty comment on the exhibition’s potential visitors and sets the tone for the whole experience.

The gallery is divided into several sections, beginning with and introduction to Alan Measles and working its way through Cultural Conversations, Pilgrimage, Religion, Sexuality, Scary Figures and finishing with The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. It is an amusing, intelligent and refreshing exhibition which combines Perry’s own work with pieces from the British Museum. Some of the best humour comes from the odd juxtaposition of the old and the new. In the first room is a case featuring Perry’s “Early English Motorcycle Helmet”, a cast aluminium helmet reminiscent of an antiquarian artefact straight out of the horde at Sutton Hoo. Made in 1981, it made me do a double-take, thinking it had been mis-labelled. The fault was entirely my own and gives a clue how to approach the rest of the exhibition.

Other notable pieces for me were the tapestry “Map of Truths and Beliefs”, the “Tomb Guardian” and the “Head of a Fallen Giant” from Perry’s own work, although there were many other excellent pieces which I don’t have space to mention here. Of the Museum’s own pieces, I found that the pilgrimage collection and sexuality pieces worked well, though none stood out in the same way as Perry’s work did.

The overall impression that I got from the exhibition was a positive and enjoyable one; Grayson Perry’s work comes across as thoughtful, funny, accessible and articulate. I’ve never seen any of his work before but have been aware of his presence in the media for some time, so it was good to familiarise myself with his art. It doesn’t try too hard but neither does it dumb down. It’s not an enormous, weighty exhibition and Perry’s work was endearing enough to hold my attention from start to finish. This particular exhibition reminds me very much of Julian Cope for some reason. The emphasis on religion / spirituality / pilgrimage, the conflict of male and female aspects of personality and society and the antiquarian nature of the exhibits all provoke that association for me. I would certainly recommend seeing it if you’re in the city and have an hour or so to invest.

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