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20 Q&As: Grayson Perry

In the new 20th Anniversary Issue of Dazed & Confused, we interviewed the iconic artist to discuss his latest show at the British Museum

Dressed as a doll and carrying a handbag fixed with the effigy of his boyhood teddy bear Alan Measles, Turner Prize-winner Grayson Perry is the cheery face of contemporary art. In fact, he emanates such glowing excitement that it is as if a small child were somehow operating the body of a 50-year-old man. His forthcoming exhibition, Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman – at the British Museum – splendidly captures much of what is both magnificent and mysterious about Grayson’s own work and persona. A sort of shrine to past creatives, much of whose work has gone uncredited, Grayson was given free reign of the museum’s archive to rummage through and cobble together whatever grasped his fancy. He spoke to us in a hidden alcove about gods, hard-ons and pottery.

Dazed & Confused: Is the latest show about probing the link between art and craft?
Grayson Perry:
I could have called it the ‘Tomb Of The Unknown Artist’, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe a lot of the people that had made the objects in the museum as artists because that implies an art world. In a way, they’re artists, but they operated in a tradition and a culture where often they subsumed their ego for the higher cause of the community. It’s not about going, ‘Look at me I’m an artist, I’m being all expressive.’ They’re getting on with making things to support their traditions, and they happen to be pretty
good at it.

D&C: So you weren’t interested in trying to slash any boundaries?
Grayson Perry: Ooh, I don’t want to slash any boundaries – you won’t find a more sexist and rigidly gendered person. If there wasn’t a boundary, I wouldn’t be able to sit on it. My job description is ‘do what I want’. I think there are clichés about what it is to be an artist. If I have one prejudice it’s against clichés, I think it’s because my mother ran off with the milkman.

D&C: What type of artefacts did you pick out?
Grayson Perry: Most of these things are made by unknown people, so I was interested in the humility, as a slightly tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to the giant egos like myself that swan around the art world nowadays. Most of the objects have ritual significance, or they have decorative purpose. Right in the middle of the show is a quarter-of-a-million-year-old stone hand axe as the original tool by the original craftsman – the tool that begat all tools, so there is that underlying idea that all these things are crafted. But I haven’t got all hung up on my idea. I haven’t stuck to a rigorous programme – I’ve gone off-piste all over the place. That’s what slightly unsettled a lot of the people here at the museum. I’m not rigorously academic, I go, ‘Ooh, I like that, that’ll do.’

D&C: Was it quite instinctive collecting the objects together then?
Grayson Perry: Yes, totally. ‘What I Think Is Good’ would be another title for this show. The one thing that links the show together is that I think they’re really nice, interesting things, especially when you see them all together. I think people will have fun with it, because there’s such a mixture of things from all departments, and they all ping off each other in strange ways.

D&C: Was one of your intentions with the exhibition to humanise the art world?
Grayson Perry: One of the things I was interested in was to perhaps remind the art world that art is another ethnography. The art world itself is like a kind of tribe with their own rituals, their own priests. I’m a kind of witchdoctor of the art world, and then the White Cubes of the contemporary art world are the temples. We’re just like any other tribe that I’ve got art from, and quite a small one compared to some of the tribes represented by the artefacts that are in the show.

D&C: Were you hoping to ruffle a few feathers?
Grayson Perry: One of the big ambitions in my career is to make happy, non-confrontational, interesting art. It’s really difficult though as the whole notion of interesting-ness is posited on being original – rebellion is written into the DNA of being an artist. I think decorativeness is really underrated, it’s often used as a pejorative term in the art world. So I’m all for supporting decorativeness as a noble ideal because, in the end, it’s just another way of saying beautiful. But I think the art world has got this idea that you have to be intellectually challenging or revolutionary in order to qualify as being in the contemporary art world – it’s scared of being nice.

D&C: You’ve never been confrontational?
Grayson Perry: Of course, when I was an angry young man, when I’d cover everything in swastikas and sex, but not any more, really.

D&C: Has your interest in sex carried into the exhibition?
Grayson Perry: There are things that relate to sex and gender in this show, one of the sections is called Sex And Gender, curiously. I went round the museum looking for hard-ons, and found quite a few explicit things on display in the museum. Most prudery around such things is modern in my estimation. Even within so-called more uptight cultures, historically they were more open-minded in the past.

I’m not a sociologist or a historian, so I can’t tell you why that is, but if you went into a medieval church there would be a Sheela Na Gig – a woman holding her vagina open looking down at you. That tells me that people then were more cool about things, they didn’t have the media to tell them to be outraged. So I put my things with a hard-on with other things with hard-ons to say, ‘Just deal with it!’

D&C: Were you brought up in an environment where craft was held in high regard?
Grayson Perry: No. Well, my father was good with his hands, but he wasn’t around a lot, so I suppose he might have sown the seeds. He was a toolmaker and did lots of work with metal – he could make pretty much anything if he turned his hand to it.

D&C: How does Alan Measles fit in with the exhibition?
Grayson Perry: Alan Measles has been with me since I was less than one, he’s my only link in many ways to childhood. That’s why he’s so important here, because he’s the central figure in my culture. I’m trying to put him among the global gods represented here in the museum. God tends to pop up a lot in the cultures here, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to have a god.’

D&C: I’ve seen Claire described as your alter ego – is that how you think of yourself or is it just Grayson in a dress?
Grayson Perry: Oh, I hate that phrase. It’s like that go-to phrase when you can’t think how else to describe it. It’s all of me, in a dress – deal with it! In a way, I wish I’d never taken another name, it was a hangover from when I was in a tranny organisation and you had to take a femme name for anonymity, because in those days, in the late 70s, it was more taboo and certainly more tricky particularly for accountants if their colleagues found out they’re called Sheila at the weekend.

D&C: How have you seen the art world progress in the last 20 years?
Grayson Perry: What’s interesting if you look back 20 years to the beginning of the YBA thing, it was a much smaller art world and it didn’t have so much interaction with the public. Now, most broadsheet newspapers probably have a story about art in them nearly every day and most people will have been to the Tate Modern and will know the name of two or three contemporary artists. I think there has been a profound change in the popular attitude – people are more willing to engage with contemporary art. It’s been amazing to be a part of this flourishing boom.

Simon Jablonski is a London-based journalist, filmmaker and the co-founder of Frau Haus Films
Photography Ronald Dick

Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue