The artist talks love, globalisation and political divides as a new exhibition of his work opens at London's Serpentine Gallery
Grayson Perry turned up to the preview of his new show The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! as Claire, his female alter ego. Wearing a psychedelic 1960s-esque mini dress (we were told this had been designed by a recent graduate of Central Saint Martins) paired with equally Mod-inspired patent shoes and a bright yellow Mulberry handbag, Claire’s make-up – spidery thin brows, pink eyeshadow and red lips – felt reminiscent of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. In short, and especially against the gaudy backdrop of Perry’s signature tapestries and ceramics, you couldn’t help but take notice. And you also couldn’t help but listen, for the words coming out of the artist’s rouged mouth seemed as prophetic as ever.
“You are now standing on what I call ‘The Mantelpiece of Britain’”, he tells us, explaining that the large-scale textile work behind him is a representation of a post-Brexit nation divided. The theme of division and unity runs throughout the show, present in pieces about the financial crash, masculinity and gender, and also more “fun” topics, to use Perry’s phrase; such as the love he has for his wife, and the power that relationships have to make us happy. Here, he muses on future of the art world and how best to heal a country politically split down the middle. Take note!
On making a shrine to his marriage…
“This room I call the ‘fun room’ – the room to cheer you up a bit. It’s got my motorcycle that was also in my British Museum show. And there’s Princess Freedom Bicycle. I actually rode that bicycle to the gallery from my studio in a special dress. The silver sculpture in the front of the bike came from the idea of a historical feminist artefact. And then there’s Marriage Shrine, made for my wife. I wanted it to look nice and old and rusty because that reflects our 30-year relationship. And I think that everybody should have a marriage shrine in their house so that they can use it to celebrate what makes us universally happy – a good relationship.”
On dealing with a country divided…
“I think it’s important to talk to people that we don’t necessarily agree with and listen to what they have to say. Maybe even let that impact on you just a little bit and not be so rigid in your own views. That’s how we develop as human beings and that’s how we build relationships – through mutual impact. I ended up talking to a cab driver once and he asked me what I was working on at the moment and I told him I was doing a project on Brexit. And we started talking about it and when he dropped me off he said ‘that’s the first conversation I’ve had in ten months about Brexit without someone losing their temper’.
“I think that is a prime example of the fact that we’ve got a lot to learn; that there’s no such thing as being totally right and totally wrong. Everybody has got to listen a bit and be a little bit impacted by the other person. Maybe it is a bit utopian to say: ‘We are in this together! We all have a shared identity!’ But often, what starts off as a utopian vision turns to into common sense and then it becomes normalised. You’ve got to start somewhere.”
On the future of art…
“I do sense that the art world is changing, becoming more globalised. We are far more politicised. I still think there’s a space for a significant material culture. I think one of the demographic shifts happening in the ecosystem of the art world that I’ve seen in London is the hollowing out in the middle – a lot of that middle band that is needed to maintain it is disappearing. The expensive pieces of real estate used to exhibit work people can no longer afford, because they are not selling art at the expensive enough price to maintain it. And then at the bottom end, there are warehouses of artists renting space that they also can’t afford. I was very lucky in my career because there were stepping-stones. There are no stepping-stones the way things are headed. That’s the problem really. I don’t know how to solve that.”
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! runs from June 8 – September 10, 2017 at the Serpentine Gallery, London.