Grayson Perry has spent two years exploring the vaults of the British Museum selecting artwork for a new exhibition that will open this autumn. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman will include an extensive and eclectic array of objects that have personal meaning for the Turner Prize-winning artist, widely known for his detailed, colourfully subversive ceramic pots. Gemma de Cruz caught up with Grayson Perry to discuss drawing, curating and what exactly went on behind the scenes.
What do you feel you achieve through drawing that is unobtainable in any other media?
Until we have a USB port built into the side of our heads so we can download our thoughts, drawing remains the only way to transfer an imagined design or image out into the real world. When I say drawing this does not just mean with a pencil and paper but using any material to make an image.
How important do you think it is for art students to learn the rudiments of drawing, for example to spend time in the life room?
Without drawing skill an artist will not be able to translate ideas into images naturally, so they will be hampered. Drawing is the language of the visual artist so it will be like trying to talk in a foreign tongue without having become fluent.
In your ‘Map of Nowhere’ print you described the many nuances of contemporary life. This very detailed work shows your innate skill and love of drawing. What initially led you to the decision to make this work in this format?
Whenever I embark on a work I look at the traditional uses of the chosen medium. Engraved maps have a long history so I wanted to use the associations people have with old wall maps of estates or counties.
Can you tell me the title of one of your favourite drawings (by another artist) and what it is that makes it so pertinent to you?
I’ve long been a fan of outsider art and love the obsessive pattern and detail of artists like Adolf Wolfli. Drawing is often promoted as a kind of hand crafted camera but I think the most important aspect of it is as a vehicle for outpourings of inner worlds. Also I think pattern and decorativeness are often underrated elements of art especially recently when everything seems to be about meaning and theory.
Your forthcoming show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, is, as you say, “a memorial to all the anonymous skilled individuals who’ve made all the things in the British Museum” What has it been like to have been able to spend time behind the scenes at the Museum?
It has been an amazing privilege to have complete access to the collection often with world-class experts as my guides. There is not a lot of rummaging involved though as some people imagine, as everything is handled and stored very carefully. I gave the Curators themes and ideas and they suggested objects and sometimes this led in an unexpected direction and onto the trail of curious and beautiful things.
What do you hope visitors will take away from seeing this show?
I hope they will have enjoyed a pilgrimage to a sacred site of my personal civilization and made poetic, social, formal and historic connections between many cultures that they might not have thought of before. I hope they can go off into the museum and the wider world and feel free to harvest inspiration in a similar way for themselves. I hope they realize there is no one right way to look at the world and its treasures.
6 October 2011 – 19 February 2012
Dish; lead-glazed earthenware; red ware with transparent yellowish lead glaze; ornamented design in dark brown slip with bust of William III crowned; initials and two rosettes; semi-circles and flowers on the sides; made in Staffordshire by Ralph Simpson, 1700 © The Trustees of the British Museum