Lessons From ‘The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!’

With such an emboldened title, one would hope this exhibition lives up to its satirical calling in some shape or form. The solo artist behind this show, is a favourite British contemporary artist, Grayson Perry. Perry, who works in mixed mediums of sculpture, textile, installation, and performance; focusses a lot of his work on social critique and identity exploration of gender, class, politics, and society - which comes through in this exhibition. He commented in the exhibition write-up that he chose the title because it made him laugh, and he wanted to diversify the audience in the room, increasing the number whilst not ‘dumbing down’ the art. I am not sure if the attendance goal was met, but I did find a few things interesting or ironic within this quite ‘popular’ exhibition.

Upon entering on a Tuesday afternoon, ‘The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!’ was packed with visitors, barely enough space to read the entry wall and swarms around the larger feature pieces. The exhibition features large tapestries of imagined maps, landscapes, and images that all speak to different parts of contemporary British life. It also includes installations of intricately painted pottery, altars, and photography.

Grayson Perry has a whimsical eye and an ability to translate his playful imagination, which easily captures the room with interest and excitement.

On first glance, the colours are bright, the pieces are grand and/or placed strategically to draw adequate attention to the from the viewer. I walked through and my eyes were immediately engaged by the colour and imagery, but my heart and mind were critical. I was apprehensive with the satirical ‘joke’ of the title, and waiting for the content to roll into revealing its meaning or humour in actuality.

I appreciated the skill of the work overall, and for the content that seemed directly tied to Perry’s primary identity, the conversation within the work seemed to ring through. The feature piece ‘Battle of Britain’ which takes presents a large landscape of or a British industrial suburb, was a perfect example. Grayson replicates visions of political pro-Brexit graffiti, alongside anarchist class war tags, trainlines, row homes, and car filled motorways. The piece is awe-striking, visceral, vulnerable, and powerful. It felt true, and obviously right on chord with the times as it was also created this year. This was probably my favourite piece in this exhibition.

Then around a few different corners there were some pieces, that as a person of colour, I found outwardly problematic, or in need of some explanation.

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In multiple of his mixed-media sculptures, Grayson replicates Latin-American and other indigenous cultures, recreating the aesthetics in his own vision. One piece I paused at was ‘Kenilworth AM1’;  a ‘candy paint’ spray painted lowrider bike with the title ‘Patience’ painted on the side, and a Dia de Los Muertos inspired altar propped on the back with Nordic cultural skeletons painted on the doors. The bike is set in front of a photo backdrop of a large snow-capped mountain range.

I found out through post-visit research the backdrop was a homage to the original performative excursion the bike was created for. Yet in the exhibition, and without context, I was confused, perturbed, and did not understand his connection to, nor appreciate appropriation of these religious and contemporary cultural art forms. Furthermore, with the after my research of his project, I still don’t find his appropriation appropriate. As a person of colour, the signal I got literally and figuratively, was a white person can continue to ride along with someone else’s culture.  

The other piece I will mention here, is a ritual wood sculpture, created in the vision of a contemporary young man titled ‘King of Nowhere’. Racial connotation on this sculpture is hard to discern, but I will describe what he is adorned with. Presented with direct reference to the way many indigenous cultures present deity and altar sculptures, it is a full nude figure, with burned candles and other offerings at his feet. The adornments that Perry included were; a wood carved baseball hat attached to his head, Adidas emblems marked on his body, small shot bottles of alcohol, ‘traditional’ seeming beaded necklaces, cigarette butts, and most notably a large selection of various knives and sharp objects stabbing him and sticking out of his chest and torso.

Again, with further research after my visit to the exhibition, I was able to read on what inspired this piece. During a Channel 4 TV series, Perry spent some time interviewing some incarcerated young men in Lancashire, a county in northwest England. It seems he produced this sculpture and an accompanying tapestry, ‘The Digmoor Tapestry’, in homage to the young men he met and the stories they shared.  I was glad that this was not just an aesthetic exploration for him, but the image he created still left me unsettled. Why is this form of art your homage to these men? If the stories are so sacred to make such an altar where is the acknowledgement of them in the space? What culture are you specifically calling upon in this creation, or is it just a mishmash of things? Were any of these men from a culture that create altars of this kind? My inquiries continue as such.

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The odd irony of this ‘most popular exhibition’ is that it unintentionally brings up some of the most popular tropes within contemporary art and culture today, privileged racism and erasure, and cultural appropriation. As a person of colour not only did I find the pieces I mentioned frustrating and borderline offensive, what added insult to injury was that there was absolutely no context nor description for the work. I personally know the cultural roots and inspiration behind these pieces, and that is the only reason why it caught my attention in juxtaposition to the artists’ cultural background. But if I did not have this knowledge, like I’m sure many audience members do not, they accept this work and the curation of this work as appropriate. The lack of contextualisation of his pieces, let alone mentioning the aesthetic inspiration behind them, continues the history of erasure on the back of privilege (white, gendered, classed, privilege).

The lack of contextualisation of his pieces, let alone mentioning the aesthetic inspiration behind them, continues the history of erasure on the back of privilege (white, gendered, classed, privilege). For audience members that have no context the roots of this work lose out on many layers of meaning, and so does the work itself.

Grayson Perry makes some wonderful work, and often tackles worthwhile content in provocative, clear, creative, and playful ways; which I am not discounting. Yet lack of explanation, interpretation and education, for any of the pieces – since in affect they are all cultural pieces once produced- leaves the audience short-changed, and ignorant.

The debate of where language, interpretation, and education lies within exhibition is a very hot topic within museum and gallery culture. But to me, this lack of text seems like simple laziness or ignorance of white privilege, not even thinking that something like these details would even matter; and that is unfortunate. Leaving out this education, it is not only an offense to history but a disservice to the future. There are depths of knowledge and that extend beyond the pieces in exhibition and could potentially inspire audience members past the work infront of them, which should/could be another goal to exhibition space. But with the ease of privilege nothing new is presented, and ironically I find ‘the most popular exhibition’ unknowingly winks at the popular tropes they seem to continue.

 

Written by Mattie Loyce