Credit to the gallery steward at Victoria Miro Gallery last weekend: pleasant greeting aside, the young, tall, skinny hipster at the front door was keeping an eye out for visitors who were treading precariously around the laboratory-esque installation that scaled the floors and walls by American artist Sarah Sze, as well as keeping his other eye out for members of the public that were, let’s say, not the gallery’s regulars. I somehow passed his beady-Bourdieu gaze and was left to my own devices in the ground floor space. In contrast, the couple behind me was catered to a press release, clear directions to the Grayson Perry exhibit and put at ease with the balsa wood and table lamps confronting them: 'Grayson Perry is through the garden and up the stairs', was surprisingly what they wanted to hear, without even having to ask. As more visitors, babies, Bugaboos and Micro scooters came through the doors I watched admirably as he greeted the visitors, directing them through the garden and up the stairs. Had he been personally trained by Perry himself to pick out the suburban-explorer-on-safari-in-East-London from the usual gallery-goers on a Saturday morning? Taking lessons in social signifiers? Wearing your Sunday best on a Saturday is admittedly like having your railcard from destination-outside-the-M25 glued to your forehead and your A to Z of London hanging out of your bag, but this guy was good and clearly knew how to pick those who were there for the tapestries.
As someone who has been fascinated with ethnography and identity ever since my own days in the social stew that was art school (Associated Press, June 2010), I was finding this reactive environment around Perry’s exhibition equally attractive as what was to be through the garden and up the stairs.
The Vanity of Small Differences has been a two-prong execution that explores the taste tribes of twenty-first century Britain. A three-part series, All in the Best Possible Taste, was presented by the artist and complemented the opening of the exhibition on national network Channel 4 – following the everyday lives of the working, middle and upper classes, Perry portrayed the ultimate lifestyle detective; entering new-builds and manors alike, dissecting decoration of home and human. The series inspired six tapestries that depict the story of class mobility and reference the mid-eighteenth century paintings, A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth, housed in London’s Soane Museum.
Living the highlife?
Channel 4 has a strong relationship with the contemporary art world. It is the official broadcaster of Tate and subsequently transmits highlights in the art world year such as the Turner Prize and more recently, a primetime exclusive of Damien Hirst’s first retrospective at Tate Modern transmitted into millions of living rooms across the nation (Money Maker, April 2012). With the network’s remit of minority interest during the Eighties, Channel 4 is now reaping its alternative agenda in an age of social acuteness that spans everything from art to artex. Spawn from the decade of Cool Britannia under Tony Blair’s New Labour, and importantly pre-recession, British aspiration soared and with growing confidence of expression came a greater divide of social superficiality. Cue Channel 4, who’s programming may arguably be seen as a taste barometer and resolutely aspirational: telling us where we should live in the UK (Location Location Location), or abroad (A Place in the Sun) telling us how to build our dream home (Grand Designs), how to fill it with things we’ve made ourselves (Kirstie's Homemade Home), how to entertain (Come Dine With Me), how not to enjoy it too much (Supersize vs Supeskinny) and telling us what to eat from the network’s messiah of metabolism Jamie Oliver. Perry therefore is in good company amongst the network’s middle class agenda and marks the culture box with a big (Nike) tick. If you followed the television series, you may have noticed that prior to All in the Best Possible Taste was Oliver’s soapbox prodigy Jimmy Doherty urging, in effect, working classes to buy ethically reared meat in Jimmy and the Giant Supermarket – if they stayed tuned they would then have Perry taunting them with middle class frivolity in Kent that comprised of yet more organic meat, John Lewis, AGAs, faux-William Morris, ethnic souvenirs, ‘green bling’ and crucially, homemade cupcakes - as if the working classes, or anyone else for that matter had enough to worry about than with keeping up appearances. The idea of homemade and DIY is an important element that binds Channel 4 with Perry – crowned as the crusader of craft after winning the Turner Prize in 2003, Perry possesses a greater element of public accessibility, than say with Hirst or Emin. The British tabloids may have introduced the YBAs to the nation but few can relate to sharks in formaldehyde and a dirty bed. While many may not be able to understand Perry’s cross-dressing alter ego Claire, ceramic vases and tapestries – objects that genetically exude skill – are familiar and culturally accessible to non-art audiences. Perry’s appearances on the BBC’s Question Time, Desert Island Discs and Have I Got News For You has opened his persona(s) to the masses and with the success of visitor numbers that attended his curatorial showcase, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen at the British Museum last year, Perry is well on the way to one day reaching national treasure status. Dame Edna watch your back.
The Agony in the Car Park, 2012
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, 2012
The Upper Class at Bay, 2012
I am fascinated by this acceptance Perry has received and the influence he is now able to command, steering his cultural cohort from the familiar surroundings of the institution to one of the leading contemporary art galleries in the East End of London. I will not be explaining the works or the journey from Sunderland to the Cotswolds, via Royal Tunbridge Wells, that Perry takes on both screen and tapestry, but wish to share the live performance that was taking place before my eyes last weekend. A steady stream of visitors filled the light-filled gallery and admired the works of our very own twenty-first century Gobelins-guru. Young, old and even newborn set themselves on the journey from the innocently kitsch interiors of The Adoration of the Cage Fighters to the plush décor of The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal through to the two tragic landscapes of the upper classes – the only section of society that has nowhere to aspire to. Similar to my last visit to Victoria Miro in 2009 for Perry’s The Walthamstow Tapestry (A Question Of Craft Over Content?, November 2009) a wealth of allegory engulfs the large two-by-four metre wall hangings. Due to technological advancement, more texture and depth has been achieved with these latest works and the neon colours created by the weft are truly remarkable, resulting in an almost three-dimensional sensation. Saturday’s audience was captivated by such saturated seduction. The familiarity of brands and objects, which British sensibility inherently recognises in a default-class recognition manner; the very sensibility that I was seeing reflected between tapestry and viewer: the Cath Kidston bag, Birkenstocks, thick spectacles, iPhones and branded headphones to name but a few. “I have that… oh look, my tea towel… you used to have that...”, could be heard in the breaks of silence as couples and families associated themselves with the work and the characters from the television series. Like a mirror that reflects the past, present and future, visitors were entranced by the social taboo Perry presents in The Vanity of Small Differences. Yesteryear’s Burberry is this year’s Barbour, and so the brand bandwagon rolls on across all three classes - what Perry’s tapestries portray is a foundation of taste that is beyond instantaneous trend but of a culture that has evolved within one’s own walls and beyond, if such an environment so permits. The ornaments of social mobility are revealed to be a filler between life and death; in #Lamentation, these very ornaments – Ferrari, iPhone and other status symbol paraphernalia – come to their bitter end in the destruction that aspiration is capable of.
Taste(less)? The general public let loose on the visitor book
I usually don’t pay any attention to visitor books but on my way out I couldn’t help but notice how well received it was and discovered a universal voice of the British public was being penned onto these pages that made for an extraordinary extension of the exhibition. Beginning with comments from the participants that featured in the television series to a mélange of society both near and far – professing, “We just came on a Middle class pilgrimage to London” - the visitor book was a font of personal reaction to the works, to Perry and life in Britain. Regional greetings were jotted, cultural conquests dropped – “… best thing I have seen since the last best which was Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmen!” – and personal taste revealed, “PS. There was a mother and toddler in a buggy. The kid was in buberry Jesus! What the fuck woman!?!”.
One contribution read, “How odd that the subjects felt flattered”. Given Perry’s growing celebrity status and the lasting association with his work, it may not be so odd that the subjects from Sunderland, Royal Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds were genuinely flattered. Flattery however is an interesting concept – in 2009 when I reported on The Walthamstow Tapestry I noted that amidst the names stitched across the Bayeux-esque document, Perry’s name was absent. In 2012, the artist takes his position as social voyeur in the middle class depiction and can be seen in the reflection of the sun burst mirror, camera in hand, stitched within The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal. Playing on a style that has seen artists incorporate themselves into their paintings throughout art history, this is an interesting shift in Perry’s self perception since his accolades from 2003 and may be read as a nod to his acceptance in both greater society as well as the exclusive art world. The big players in the art world speak a language many do not understand au fait with sharks and bed sheets. In the first series of All in the Best Possible Taste Perry confesses he has, “…forged on to be comfortable in the art world” and I question whether he felt he was an ornament in the art world’s display cabinet – an exotica himself amongst the echelons of art society, curious of the craft that is now vying for space on the gallery floor.
What is certain is that the general public’s taste for Perry and his taste for the general public is growing from cultural name drop to cross-cultural personality and television seems to be a medium the artist now relishes. Reports that Perry has signed a two-year deal with Channel 4 for a new commission around themes of etiquette and aesthetics means we will be seeing more of this 'tortured genius', whether he’s to our taste or not. If any network executives are reading this, I would like to propose my very own pitch, The Grayson Perry Effect, and follow the cultural pilgrims who are swapping their weekends in John Lewis for the white walls of the contemporary art gallery: a How To Look Good (at an art opening) meets Coach Trip perhaps? Stay tuned…
Visit Victoria Miro for further details on The Vanity of Small Differences and catch up on 4oD to view In the Best Possible Taste series from each social class who inspired Perry along the way.
The Vanity of Small Differences
7th June - 11th August 2012
Victoria Miro Gallery
16 Wharf Road
London N1 7RW