Just before his Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! opens at the Arnolfini, Grayson Perry – Turner Prize winner, ceramicist, cross-dresser – discusses Brexit, gentrification, critics and masculinity with James Higgins
I step into Grayson’s studio in Islington, surprised that the man himself had opened his own front door. Being shown the cosiest of the chairs, I get as comfortable as I can in the presence of a hero and ask: how does Grayson feel about Britain in his lifetime? Any rose-tinted glasses?
“Not at all. I’m consciously trying to find the national story. Danny Boyle had a good stab at it at the Olympics: immigration, the welfare state – they’re Britain now. We need a narrative that explains how we arrived here: and is our narrative working as an explanation?”
A lot of pieces in Grayson’s latest exhibition are about Brexit Britain, and two Brexit pots represent how Leave and Remain voters perceive the modern UK. How does he see things?
“It’s not necessarily what people are saying, it’s how they’re saying it. A flag doesn’t mean anything – but someone shouting, “IT’S JUST A FLAG”, makes you think, ‘yeah, but to you, that’s not what it means’.”
I ask Grayson if these two viewpoints will ever find common ground. “Put simply, those views will be shunted off the mortal coil. You do get cynical as you get older. When you pay a lot of taxes, as I do, you do wonder where they’re being spent. A journalist asked me, ‘How do you feel about people paying lots of money for art they don’t like?’, and I replied, ‘I pay for a lot of weapons I don’t like’.
“When I was researching ‘average-ish-ness’ I found a fantastic book by Julian Baggini, called Welcome to Everytown. He lived for a year as an average person in Rotherham which has the most average racial diversity and income. He lived in an average road and took average holidays. If you want to romanticise the average British culture, we must ask: what are we defending?” Indeed, I reply: what is it that Muslim people won’t talk about? Strictly? Grayson laughs.
A piece entitled Battle of Britain – a scene, viewed from a train carriage window, of a barren UK landscape – represents this conflicted Britain. I ask how the scene was conceived: “I like those in-between places and you often see the ugliest things from the train. If you look at Lincolnshire, the Fens, the parts of Kent and Essex that border the Thames estuary – they’re flat nothing. I always thought they’re the British equivalent of the flyover states in the US. They have very deprived places with no big culture.”
I tell Grayson that we both hail from the same part of the world. “You’ll know what I mean then. Jon Ronson hinted at it when he drove a car across East Anglia. He found a place called Hollywood and a place called New York and he made this analogy of it being like the middle of America.” And it’s true, there are endless tattered houses in the middle of nowhere with a cluster of rusted cars.
Grayson won the Turner Prize in 2003. Fourteen years later, he is as conspicuous in British culture as he ever was. As an artist who’s as recognisable as their work, I broach the subject of fame.
“Fame presents you with a really strange situation. Because people know everything about you and you don’t know anything about them, and yet they talk to you as if they’re your best friend.
“And now, people don’t necessarily want to talk anymore – I’ve watched the ‘selfie’ thing happen and if I go out, I could spend an hour doing them. I was with Rylan Clark in a local shopping centre and he was very professional, grabbing the phone off people.
“Truthfully, I would like to have more interaction through Twitter, but I’d be too upset if I got any trolling. Maybe I’m too fragile.”
Fragility isn’t something you might expect from Grayson. In his art, his demeanour and his ideas, Grayson strikes you as incredibly robust. One of his recent vases, entitled Puff Piece, is emblazoned with imagined, sycophantic reviews. How do critics really affect him?
“At first, I collected a scrapbook of all the clippings. I don’t read them and while, on the whole, most of them are good, I think they affect you too much. They linger, particularly the bad ones. I stopped keeping a scrapbook after the Turner prize. I used to proudly boast that I’d won the Turner prize without ever being in an art magazine, which I used to call climbing Everest without oxygen.”
Grayson’s fame is amplified, perhaps, by his idiosyncratic style. I wonder if a dress makes people feel closer and more comfortable with him – or if, like a uniform, it provides distance. “When I’m in a dress, I’m like the queen. And, as I became more well known, the dress sort of cemented it because I was so recognisable. The dress has become like a ritual garment – when I’m being Claire, people know who I am and what I am there for. I’m in role. And, like the queen, I also can’t be difficult when I’m in a frock.”
A big inspiration for much of Grayson’s recent work has been masculinity. His recent book The Descent of Man has added to an increasingly widespread discussion about the future of masculinity. While men are more prolific and better paid than women in most areas of television, a more encouraging trend of late sees men appearing in a greater diversity of shows. Bear Grylls and Mutiny continue to provide us with staple masculine heroes: but Bake Off and RuPaul’s Drag Race show a growing proliferation of new male role models.
“What if masculinity can’t change?” Grayson argues. “All the way through The Descent of Man I talk about masculinity becoming increasingly redundant. What do you do with redundant things? You put them on a scrap heap. Masculinity is like video cassettes. Masculinity has become a weekend-warrior construct. It’s not something to live with every day any longer.”
I put it to Grayson that, as he is a transvestite and I’m gay, we’re both at odds with traditional masculinity. Given that we’re both labelled minorities, I’m interested in Grayson’s take on identity. With a generation more concerned with identity politics than ever, are labels helpful?
“I think our mind needs something to get traction on. We’re all looking for clues to work out where people are coming from. But, young people nowadays seem to be going on about identity politics. They can’t complain about negative labels if they go on about identity politics. There is talk of a spectrum – but can you argue we’re all on a spectrum if you also want to have your own labelled box?”
A major theme that shines through in Grayson’s most recent exhibition is gentrification. I killed time before our meeting at the Workers Café on the next street: Formica, gingham, and tea for a quid. As it turned out, it was Grayson’s favourite.
Having discussed identity politics, I’m interested to know what Grayson thinks about gentrification. My gran used to say ‘community’ is what people have when they don’t have any money, so I ask how Grayson feels about urban communities being pushed out of the city.
“There is an element of truth to what your gran says. The label ‘community’, whenever it crops up, is always applied to the victims. They don’t talk about a white, middle-class male banking community for that reason. But do people wish there was as much crime around their neighbourhood as there used to be, or that it was as dirty? In fact, I was talking to someone in Bristol about the sourdough craze – you might find it ridiculous that there are so many sourdough bakeries, but what cuisine was there before? Inedible pasties?
“People are readier to admit they’re a member of ISIS than admit they’re a hipster. Hipster means cliché. So why do you buy into it? That said, it’s hard to be different. When you’ve got a job and kids it’s hard to think about being different.”
Being different is hard, and Grayson admits he works at it. While difference is vital, he wants to see all his subjects walk past the Worker’s Café window. Universalism is good. “I don’t want just 5,000 people to see my work – I want a broad audience and I’m very much concerned with this broad question about Britishness at the moment.” With a whole country unsure of itself, the question is: can the answer to Britishness be as universal?
Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! is at Arnolfini from Sept 27-Dec 24. For more info, visit the website.
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