Sunday, February 19, 2012

Artefacts, Arts & Craft 
Grayson Perry - The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman - Review
I wanted to see this exhibition by artist Grayson Perry at the British Museum, as I had heard good things about it from several sources, including a recommendation from our Arts Award moderator. As an artist who has undertaken an arts residency in a museum myself, I was interested to see how an artist who had won the Turner Prize (2003), had responded to the British Museum’s collections.
Perry was given access to the stores of the British Museum, where he selected a number of artefacts that attracted his attention and piqued his interest. The resulting exhibition comprises a selection of these artefacts paired with artworks in a variety of media, that he has produced in response. The sculptures, ceramics, works on paper and textiles that he created, are all very well made and incorporate text and images that make pointed commentary on the world in which we now live. 
The exhibition is organised into four areas coming under the lose grouping of, our dealings with death and remembrance, mapping and pilgrimage, fertility and, life as a journey.
Perry seems to be interested in how much our world is overwhelmed with ‘products’, the amount of things we seem to need for our daily existence in comparison with the times of our ancestors and predecessors. He dramatically shows this in his creation of ‘father’ and ‘mother’ pilgrim figures, made of cast iron and shown carrying an inordinate amount of ‘clobber’ - not usual for those travelling long distances on foot.
I admire his wit and re-working of the craft and tradition of pot-making, using his ceramics to mark events, make comments and made as ‘souvenirs’, but in a contemporary context, though I don’t actually like his aesthetic, I think I feel ‘less is more’... It’s something about the works being over rich, it’s just my opinion, but to me they are over elaborate and lacking balance and beauty, - probably exactly how our image-overwhelmed world should be represented.
Texts with the exhibits come in the form of very personal comments explaining why he chose the artefact and what it means to him. Written as spoken, Grayson Perry has a distinctive voice and it was like having him standing alongside you as you looked at the exhibit, as if he was like a friend accompanying you to the exhibition, sharing an aside. 
What’s important I think, is that by putting the British Museum’s items in a art exhibition context, their prime presentation is re-defined (at least temporarily), as cultural objects created by people, rather than artefacts forming part of a national collection. Interestingly, the artefacts don’t loose anything for being exhibited in this way, if anything their inherent power was strengthened next to Perry’s works, by the very simplicity of their forms.
I was looking forward to buying a copy of the exhibition catalogue, my usual souvenir of a ‘pilgrimage’ to an engaging exhibition, but I was disappointed. My impression of the catalogue was of a large book of poorly ‘cut out’ images with bad colour reproduction - it didn’t tempt me at all! If there was another version of the catalogue, I didn’t see it and all the merchandise felt rather ‘thin’; I would have preferred to have seen a well-produced, large image reproduction booklet, showing each of the artefacts paired with their artworks, rather than this over-blown orange-tinged tome.
I enjoyed seeing this personal evocation of meaning, but it didn’t change my life, (I’ve been to exhibitions that have), but it did make me think what artefacts I would choose and it did bring the hidden maker to mind. More importantly, the exhibition that shows art and artefact side by side in a museum, made me think again about our definitions of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, how the meanings are different in museum and in gallery contexts. It also made me question how we see artefacts away from their place of origin, as well as where in fact, contemporary ‘art’ as we know it, has come from.


Exhibition closes 26th February, 2012.

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