In the face of persistent and traditional British summer drizzle, Husband, Daughter No.2 and I battled our way across Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery for Grayson Perry‘s modestly titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! Early disclaimer: though I am a big fan of Grayson Perry’s work and I like the odd excursion to an art exhibition, I had a more immediate reason for going to this one – I’m on one of the pots. I’m going to go on about this at great length later in this post but I’ll get the more general overview out of the way first. People who actually know how to critique art have written about the exhibition in a far more informed way (do Google them for comparison – the Observer one mistakes me for Philippa Perry, which is a lot more flattering to me than her) but this isn’t a review, more a personal response.
Three things I especially like about Perry’s work: his attachment to craft; his use of text; his choice of themes. Of course these are the things which make him such a popular artist, and also lay him open to the inevitable accusations of populism, which I think he generally just about skirts (no pun intended, but hey, now it’s there…) in the artworks, if not in his attitudes to art, artists and art consumers. Of course ‘populism’ is just a pejorative term for ‘accessible to people I don’t think deserve it because they haven’t paid their art world dues’. Perry’s particular brand of populism is created not so much by his artworks as by his popular media communications, through television, books and interviews. I don’t see what’s to complain about anyone who chooses to speak so eloquently and intelligently about what they’re doing (unless it’s like the Magic Circle – revealing how the tricks work. As my daughter says, no-one wants to know how the sausage is made – except they do). In particular I like his egalitarianism; he treats everyone equally, with interest and mostly without spitefulness or sneering.
This exhibition brings together various of his themes, including his own identity and marriage, his investigation of masculinity, the City, and the art world itself. Daughter and I were taken with The Digmoor Tapestry and its resonance with the rugs decorated with roads and houses that children scoot cars around on (albeit with added phalluses and cannabis leaves).
We howled at the slogans on Luxury Brands for Social Justice: “join our group of unique individuals” “this art makes me a better person” “flat whites against racism”. I did like Consumer Claire and her shopping bags. (Surely time for a Barbie-style Claire doll?)
I recognised the marriage shrine with all of its ‘precious’ objects telling the story of a shared life – not big landmark items but the found objects that mark our journeys together: a bird’s leg; metal sculptures with bits missing; strings of ‘holey stones’, traditionally hung on houses and boats for luck.
Then behind it a photo of the artist and his wife holding hands, with their mini-mes in the shrine behind them, echoing the image within an image of the Arnolfini Portrait, especially in its revealing of the artist. Not that he needs a lot of revealing – as his self-portrait elsewhere in the exhibition shows. (I didn’t take a photo – couldn’t stand far enough back to get the whole *ahem* length of it.)
Other favourite pieces were the tapestries, Death of a Working Hero with its Trade Union banner styling linking the destruction of the mining industry and the rise of new ways of signalling masculinity, and Battle of Britain with its collaged icons of the liminal spaces of Kent. The difference between the 3D storytelling of the pots and figures, and the 2D storytelling of the tapestries was striking: the multiple stories and patchworked images that Perry uses are much easier to synthesise on the tapestries where you can see everything in one go.
Battle of Britain is part of Perry’s final theme: the division of the nation by 2016’s pointless, unspeakably damaging, vanity referendum on leaving the EU which will surely feature in the history books as the culminating folly of politics as self-interest. The central artwork for this theme is a pair of vases representing Leave and Remain, titled Matching Pair. They are not displayed to the best effect for this purpose in the Serpentine exhibition; although they’re the centrepiece in the main gallery, they’re placed too far apart to appraise as a pair. To be fair, it’s hard to see how they could have been displayed otherwise in that space, given the likely popularity of the exhibition and the need to give people space to move round them. However, once there are groups of people standing between the two, the effect is rather lost.
And it does pay to study each very closely as they are incredibly dense with content: photos and symbols and beautiful gilded overlaid maps of Hackney (on the Remain pot) and Boston, Lincs (on the Leave pot). The vases are proportionately sized to match the 52/48 split, and the content was crowd-sourced through social media, with Remain and Leave voters asked to choose colours, icons, heroes, and to send in photos of themselves to feature on the pots. Of course it was only nominally crowd-sourced: the artist made the decisions about what to include and how, and that’s as it should be – it’s his pot. The process was documented on a Channel 4 documentary, Divided Britain.
I saw the original call to contribute, framed as ‘do you still have strong feelings about Brexit? Let us know and send a photo.’ Yes, I thought, I certainly do still have strong feelings. So I posted a comment, describing the horror of waking the day after the referendum with a rush of fear for a return to the socially acceptable racism I used to experience regularly as a child and young woman, encouraged now by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and the monochrome morality of an In/Out vote. I attached a photo of myself as a child. I had a reply from the film company making the programme: could you send us a more up-to-date photo please? I hesitated: I had a fair idea what was likely to follow. Then I thought, to hell with it – I do feel strongly about this, and if I’ve got a chance to stand up for my views, then I ought to do so. So I sent a photo. And a few weeks later, there was my silhouette, on the Remain pot.
Exciting stuff. In due course I was invited up to London to see the finished pots and be filmed for the documentary. I was hugely anxious about this but I’m so glad I overcame my apprehension, because it meant meeting a small group of fellow Remainers also on the pot, some of whom have stayed in touch and become friends, and to whom this post is dedicated: Jo, Nathan, Kate M, Robert, Gordon, Nick, Rachel, Kate S, Chris and their photographer prodigy daughter Ava. We had lunch together before the big reveal, and more than one person noted it was the first time since the referendum that they’d sat down at a table with others without being afraid that a row might start. Then we were taken to see the pots for the first time, have our responses filmed, and meet Grayson. (He’s lovely. I wanted to say, screw this, let’s go down the pub and have a bloody good laugh at how absurd the world is. I suspect he might have said yes.)
At this point, it became very clear that the overall messages for the programme had already been decided: firstly that the whole Brexit thing had been and continued to be about emotions rather than logic. I would agree that that was the way it had been played, especially in the anti-expert trope pushed by the Leave campaign. As someone who is quite keen on knowledge and feels it might just make the world a better place, that was one of the most depressing and frightening things for me. The second and perhaps more transparent message was that we had ‘more in common than that which divides us’, and the pots in their superficial similarities were supposed to demonstrate that to us, and spark a reconciliation.
Now, I take enormous issue with this, and I think it’s a shame that the documentary took this false and simplistic premise as its central conceit because it could have been so much more interesting. It’s absurd to reduce the massively complex reasons people voted the way they did to such a platitude – though I accept that a single one-hour documentary would never be able to cover these adequately. But even in the central artwork that the programme focused on, the apparent similarities might have been queried to good effect. To me they were more plausibly read as a warning that we cannot guess what our neighbours are thinking, however similar to us they might look. (I said this; it didn’t make the edit.)
And actually, especially now I’ve had a chance to have a proper look, they don’t look all that similar. The Leave pot is peopled with figures in aggressive and defiant poses, challenging their viewers to criticise them: a squaddie in full combat gear, a man waving a hammer, a woman whose t-shirt proclaims her to be the ‘Crazy Chicken Lady’. Look at me, I’m an individual, I’m taking back control! The Remain pot feels more creative, domestic, co-operative: Nathan showing off his own pot; Kate and Chris kissing on a beach, photographed by their daughter; Rob proclaiming his Bristol art pride in his DismalLand t-shirt; Gordon and his guitar. Me, modelling the frock I’d just finished making. Look, pockets!
So finally they brought the Remainers and the Leavers from the other pot together for the last bit of filming, and the differences became even more obvious. The Leavers talked pointedly about ‘Great’ Britain – about how Europe ‘wasn’t strong and stable’ because of all these terror attacks and migrants – about how they were individuals who’d not benefited from the EU. One woman spent a long time telling us how much research she’d done before voting without saying what had swayed her decision. When I asked her to elaborate after the mics were turned off, she told me very seriously that it was because if we didn’t have so many EU migrants we’d have room to take some Syrian child refugees. (Please try to imagine the look on my face at this point.) Another told me migrants were a burden on services, and when I pointed out that they paid taxes which paid for services, she said they didn’t, they just claimed benefits. Then she tried to hug me in the name of reconciliation. I said I didn’t do hugs. Hugging wouldn’t make the chaos and hurt her vote had caused go away anyway, it would only make her feel better. Then I walked out.
So how much of this difference made it to the final edit? Predictably little. But that’s not surprising: the filmmakers needed to make a story in a very short amount of screen time. I’m resigned to that, and I do understand the drivers for commercial media production. I’m also conscious that the final edit was probably rushed; the programme was originally planned to be screened on the anniversary of the referendum but had to be brought forward because of the General Election, and that also meant that more caution had to be exercised in the edit to maintain ‘balance’. Also I should say that everyone from Swan Films involved in the filmmaking was just lovely, from runners and researchers, through camera and sound operators, to the director Neil. It was always going to be a stressful and emotional experience and they genuinely did recognise that and tried to make it as easy as possible. But their job was to make television.
It was an odd experience: on the one hand, I’m an artist’s daughter and I know that the intended meaning and direction of the artwork is down to the artist with the model reduced to content. On the other, modelling wasn’t content-neutral in this case: we were asked for our stories, even if Perry said that we were chosen for the interesting shapes our silhouettes made. So I did feel more invested in the process than a model might usually expect to feel.
In the end, I’m proud to feel that I did my best to represent my fellow Remainers, that I had the chance to push aside for a moment the helplessness I and others had felt since the referendum and still feel now (like watching a horrible train crash in very slow motion and not being able to stop it). And I’m on a Grayson Perry pot, so go see it. The exhibition’s on till 10 Sept at the Serpentine, then on tour (first stop the Arnolfini in Bristol). Look, pockets!