Grayson Perry, Meaning and Playfulness



Recently every post on here, which now seems to have slowed to a quarterly drip, starts off with an apology  (to myself) for a general apathy toward writing up thoughts that are not directly related to Digital or Planning in some way. This post is no different, and in fact more than 8 months overdue.

At the end of last year, the British Museum hosted what was for the me the exhibition of the 2011 – Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen. Grayson, who seems to effortlessly weave himself between the elitist art circles, the lefty middle classes and the populist media with a grace, agility and honesty that sees him perennially welcomed with open arms wherever he may go, appeared on Channel 4 in a short series exploring class and culture in modern day Britain (digression – which is all pretty important as noted in a post by Russell Davies recently – because as a nation, we’ve become less politically minded and substituted these ideologies and beliefs that were strong in the 60s and 70s with a passion for culture). (another digression – this shift in focus has led to something called soft politics, which is about connecting with people through stories over straight politics – I’m not particulary politically minded, but to me this interesting, largely for the above reasons I would assume). Anyway, Grayson Perry’s crossdressing form reappearing on TV and prompted me to write something about his last exhibition.

As a culture, we are obsessed with meaning and finding meaning hidden deep beneath the layers of veneer and aesthetic. This could never be more true of our industries, and for good reason – we ask meaningful questions of people to set us on the path to creating communications that will resonate with them, because then from the outset we have developed a depth of understanding that allows to get much closer to them as people. Likewise brands are being forced to occupy a much higher order of being, that goes way beyond believing in things and then providing products and services around these beliefs – because people want more now, they want meaningful value to be added back to their lives and those of their communities. The search for meaning is of course an inherent trait of humanity that traces itself back to the birth of civilization and religion.

So, upon entering the exhibition it was refreshing to be greeted with the open line:

‘Do not look too hard for meaning here.

I am not a historian, I am an artist. That is all you need to know.’

And from that point you enter into a story that is both profound and pointless, obscure and obvious, silly, sincere and severe, but most importantly playful, and overtly so. Unlike so much of Art today, what you see is not hidden behind esoteric rhetoric, meaning is not selectively reserved for those who have extensively studied the thinking of Adorno or Walter Benjamin, it’s just kind of there. And it’s funny. Really funny.

The British Museum is an Argos catalogue of the outputs of humanity since the dawn of time. Everything has a neat order, a place in context and a unique number. It is ‘where the world meets the world’ as they say. Grayson has interwoven his Art with this catalogue of the craft of old in a really exciting way. One of the core themes of the exhibition according to him, was to create the means to find oneself among the collections of the BM – ‘seeing oneself,  one’s personal connections as a human being, reflected back in the objects made long ago by fellow men and women with similar, equally human, concerns’ – the craft here is in playfully weaving art into history without over imposing – a fantasy world, deftly overlayed upon the history of a real one.

And it looks a bit like this:

Alan Measles, Grayson’s teddy bear and ‘benign dictator of his childhood imaginary world, where his roles included surrogate father, rebel leader, fighter pilot and undefeated racing driver’, crashing down over Latvia on an urn and in the style and placed next to:

An Iranian painting from the 1500s called ‘The Gardener and the Bear’. In reward for the man’s kindness, the bear seeks to kill a fly on his face with a stone. The inscription reads: ‘A clever enemy is better than a stupid friend.’ (Alan Measles also has his own blog here)

The more you traverse the tapestried walls, souvenirs of pilgramige and shrines, you start to see how cleverly injects modern culture in to ancient artefacts – flags of Alan Measles doling out sensible advice to other religions, reality TV vases, maps of our truths and beliefs featuring chavs and emos – it’s all things that they tell you Art isn’t, in fact it’s far more playful.

Playfulness is pretty important these days. Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus would have as all thinking that we will be using our spare time to collaborate toward achieving a greater good and not passively consuming lean back media, and this to an extent is still very true. But now, people are starting to realise the value of play and unstructured time in a society that has become more goal orientated and always on than before. Play, for reasons spontaneous and serendipitous, is a much greater driver of creativity, imagination and innovation.

According to JWT, we don’t really have that much time for it these days:

I mean, I’ve written this because I feel I need a functional and measurable output for my spare time.

It seems there is a big gap for brands and business to help people play and to encourage them to stop reacting to the flow of a real-time world. The 20% times and hackathons we see are prime examples as to how beneficial play can be if structured correctly.

Anyway, in The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen, Grayson Perry has mastered the playful and un-obtuse and allowed people to look, laugh and think without being consumed by a search for a hidden layer of meaning. I think this quote sums it all up best:

‘Part of my role as an artist is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, I tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant. Like religion is not a rational process, I use my intuition. Sometimes our very human desire for meaning can get in the way of having a good experience.


Jamie Shovlin – Various Arrangements

Apathy appears to have consumed me over the last couple of months, hopefully I can inject some fluviality back into here and also here, far too easy to think about things and not write them down, or not even think about things at all.

I went back to the Haunch of Venison for the first since the awesome James Lavelle UNKLE exhibition – Daydreaming, which was lots of fun. Suffice to say, the space has changed a lot since then, in fact it’s not even the same space, the back of the RA where it used to be now houses an incongruously placed cafe and stained off white walls that were once adorned with art of all variations. The Haunch shifted a few hundred metres up to New Bond Street, just before the point when commerce moves from the haute couture of Burberry and Cartier to the permanent sales and garish signage of the Italian Suit Company and French Eye.

The new space is devoid of grandeur and feels more like nice unfurnished house that has just being given a lick matt white paint than anything conventional, except for the fact that it is currently hosting Jamie Shovlin’s Various Arrangements.

Shovlin has an interest in exploring the fallibility of classification systems, we have an obsession with taxonomy and like to place things into orders we deem logical, even if what we classifying defies logic all together. Here he focuses on the absurdist premise that intellectual achievement can be ranked or scored according to a points system.

The Fontana Modern Masters series – a set of pocket guides on eminent writers, scientists and philosophers – is the ecosystem of intellect he explores. Written by, arguably the next wave of masters they cover Lacan, Dostoevsky, Derrida and lots of other people I’d never heard of before (a great tool for making you feel inadequate in a more I learn, less I know type way). Their cover designs are considered a design classic and have recognisable abstract geometric feel to them, very much like a less manufactured patterning that you might find in Topman, but better. Obviously.

Of the 49 Fontana titles that were produced between 1970 and 1984, there were an additional 17 that were not published for some unknown reason. And it is these that Shovlin takes and applies his arbitrary system of classification to in an attempt to inform the cover designs of these titles that never were. The first thing you see is his colour wheel:

This pseudo-mathematical wheel arbitrarily looks at a series of factors such as the number of lines on the subjects entry, number of books cited in the bibliography and premiums for things like Nobel prizes won. It’s a bit like an intellectual Klout score, representative of something, but on the whole utterly meaningless. He then takes this score and applies it to a palette of colour, so each Master’s work has a corresponding set of tones which are pulled out of the 16 million digital spectrum. This formula is applied to a set of geometric variations that existing covers have adhered to and you thus end up with the colours and designs of the missing titles which fill the walls of the rest of the exhibition.

Intellectual Top Trumps.


John Martin: Apocalypse

I  took a trip to the end of the world the other day, to see John Martin’s Apocalypse at the Tate Britain. It is an impressive chronology of the the 19th century sensationalist painter’s most epic works. Martin, and his sublime depictions of fantastical myths and legends toured the English speaking world and had been seen by over 2m people by the time of his death in 1854. Exhibited were the extraordinary tales of men watching the last of the sun burn out in a vibrant red hue, the fires of Vesuvius engulfing Pompeii, the decadence of Babylon falling as well as countless visualisations from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 

The exhibition has been curated so as you have been passed through The Book of Revelations and then Exodus, you reach The Last Judgement triptych, adorned by frames of egregious brass and swathed in erubescent light they sit in triplicate and ownership of the last gallery space.

The triptych, comprised of the The Last Judgement, The Plains of Heaven and The Day of His Great Wrath is an effulgence of varied of emotion. In stasis, they tell a rich tale of The Last Judgement inspired by St John the Divine’s account in Revelation. They express the “sublime, apocalyptic force of nature and the helplessness of man to combat God’s will”

and, lo, there was a great earthquake’ and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; | And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. | And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. (Revelation 6:12-14)

However, what was most interesting was exactly how they told that tale and how culture over the years had created stories around it. They are staged upon grand scenes in a way that asks for enquiry, but essentially represent a fragment or screenshot that is part of something wider, something with a history and with a future. So, people starting placing the works at the centre of storytelling sessions, weaving in and out of past and present and referring back to different elements within Art to frame and guide.

The Tate took this heritage and moved it on, forward into our Digital age, and used projection mapping techniques to overlay a replica image onto the paintings and then various effects to highlight and animate different components and aid in fragment, a booming apocalyptic voice over that spoke of our impending doom. Whilst perhaps detracting from the finer technical points of the art works (like the fact that it is a painting), it felt like a camp fire experience, with the paintings at the centre, but with technology to enhance and not detract. It is no wonder they inspired the likes of Star Wars, a lot of Ray Harryhausen’s work and Alan Moore’s falling society.