It seems, on first appearance, to be a clash of cultures as clamorous as any witnessed in the British Museum’s history: Grayson Perry, of the little-girl dresses and pornographic pots, allowed unfettered access to the museum’s collection to put together a show of his choosing. Bloomsbury’s sedate cultural temple has been flirting with the zesty stars of the contemporary art scene for a while now, but this seems like a risky consummation. Perry is not known for his half-measures.
Sure enough, humility is not conspicuous as he explains the origins of the show. “I wanted to put myself forward as a one-man civilisation,” he says. “So it’s quite hubristic.” He doesn’t, in truth, seem discomforted by the idea that retributive gods may be planning revenge on his ambitions. “I like the idea of making an archaeology out of my own career.”
Perry is in the transvestite guise of his alter ego Claire, wearing a yellow and light blue dress with a pink ruffle and shoes, as we talk in the upper room of Victoria Miro, the gallery that represents him. A bright red handbag and orange umbrella lie by his side. The explosion of colour belies a thoughtful, even sober demeanour. He explains that the exhibition’s title – The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – came before anything else. Then the ideas flooded forth.
He approached the museum with a sketch of his intentions, which were no more than half-formulated. “I always operate from a place of vagueness,” he says. “And then I can post-rationalise for Britain.” He said he wanted to pay tribute to all those anonymous creators whose products enrich the museum’s collection, and add some of his own work to the mix. The museum accepted the proposal.
It sounded like a critique of the cult of celebrity among artists, I say. “A questioning,” he corrects. “Individualism has become the religion of our times. But most artefacts are made by craftsmen. They are the product of a collective belief system. Tradition is a great gift to someone who is making something.
“It is the burden on contemporary artists that they have to be original. Some of them spend all their time on being original, so they never bother to get good.”
Ouch. That was more critique than questioning. “Somebody who spends their entire life working in a very narrow range can get very good,” he continues, “and then they can kind of riff on that.” Perry’s alluring ceramics, improbably festooned with biting social comment, won him the Turner prize in 2003 and stand as a testament to that fruitful mix of traditional craft and contemporary sensibility.
The final form of the exhibition will consist of 30 of Perry’s own works, together with 170 pieces that he has chosen from the museum. He says it will be a “proper British Museum show: precious artefacts, text, labels, merchandising”. The centrepiece will be Perry’s “tomb”: a cast-iron coffin-ship, “weighted with the freight of Perry’s imagination”, according to the museum’s description. That sounds like a heavy load. “A lot of the things in the museum come from tombs,” he says by way of explanation. “And I am always interested in playing with clichés.”
He describes the free hand he was given by the museum when choosing the works as “daunting. There are 8m objects; you can’t see them all, I had to make choices before I even started.” I ask if he was actively inspired by any of the works, and he winces slightly: another cliché. “A lot of academics in museums are suspicious of easy cross-cultural connections, which can be very spurious.” He was content, instead, to revel in the small similarities he found between ancient objects and some of his own works. Nothing more profound than that? “I don’t have any great truck with mysticism,” he says dismissively.
He worried about Egyptian mummies (“too much cultural baggage”) and found himself absorbed, during his researches, by the way people behaved in museums. “People take photos all the time. It has become part of us, it is inveigled into our brains.” It was a move towards the external referencing of experience, he says, before giving an example from his own past. “When I was a child, I used to narrate any game I was playing to an unknown audience. I was very aware of that. When I played with cars, I was Murray Walker.”
People are prevented from looking properly at art works, he says. “I watched a woman who literally walked away as soon as she had pushed the button of her camera. Galleries have this thing called ‘dwell time’ – I think for a lot of people the camera gets longer dwell time than the work itself.” It did no favours for artists such as Perry himself, whose detailed works demanded greater attention. “My art is marooned in a different era of looking,” he says without self-pity. “I’ve always made things that warranted a longer look.”
Perry is reluctant to give too much away about the exhibition, wanting to preserve an element of surprise for the viewer. But one of its key works is an ancient Egyptian wooden model of a sailing boat with crew, dating from 2000-1800BC, an ancient example of migration to the afterlife. A giant tapestry by Perry, which hangs in the gallery in which we are talking, deals with similar themes. Crafted on a computerised loom in Belgium, the work is described by Perry as a “map of truths and beliefs”. Unlikely images of transcendence are mixed playfully in a mash-up of contemporary social habits. “It is a great big cemetery,” says Perry. “Places we all head off to. They can be for shopping, or worshipping. There are a lot of similarities these days.” A small boy holds a set square that looks like a gun, a symbol of “our desperation to cling on innocently to the idea of logic”.
Notwithstanding the work’s jokiness, there were some serious social points being made here, I say. Perry bridles. “Being English, I have a strong allergy to earnestness. I have to put the serious issues tangentially. As a nation, we are uniquely qualified to detect pomposity. As soon as we hear anyone go on about the meaning of life, we say, ‘come off it’.” He tries to put his points across “seductively, humorously” to achieve maximum effect.
Another prize from his rummaging of the museum’s bargain basement was what he calls a “sex-change, drag-queen penny”: a coin from 1882 featuring the bust of Queen Victoria, mischievously re-engraved to show her with beard and boating hat. Was this a clue to a common theme in his selections? “The theme is – I like it,” he says purposefully.
Perry’s show is the British Museum’s most extensive commitment to contemporary art in its recent history, and in a serious – almost earnest – moment he talks of how “honoured” it makes him feel. “It was very brave of them. They didn’t know what I would come up with. They must have felt they were going to get teased a bit.” And are they? “Only by me.”
‘Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, British Museum, London, October 6-February 19 2012. Supported by AlixPartners with Louis Vuitton