The British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects explored history through objects to be venerated, to be studied and to be admired. Welcome to the History of the World in 100 Objects through the looking glass. Grayson Perry has plunged into the collection and pulled out an exhibition that is almost totally unique in its breadth, its range, its humour and its desire that you should learn nothing conventional whatsoever as you pass through. When the sight of a teddy bear called Alan Measles undertaking a pilgrimage to Germany is by far the least bizarre thing on show then you know you’re looking at something very special.
Writing about The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is not easy. I’m not sure I have the language to explain it. If it were a conventional show you would say that it links objects from the collection in broad themes (such as spirituality, death, pilgrimage) as well as presenting Perry’s own work both in response to items in the exhibition and as standalone works that further define and explore those themes. So far, so boring. Yes, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman does all that – and spans about 100,000 years of human creativity in the process but it also illuminates, surprises and humours in a way that I wish more exhibitions would do.
Thinking back over my limited exhibition attendance the only thing similar I can think of is Mark Wallinger’s The Russian Linesman which was at Southbank Centre a few years back. He too pulled together various pieces that were not expressly linked. In that exhibition the defining characteristic of the chosen works was ambiguity and one of the most profound pieces was a painting in the noble European tradition of a fallen soldier. The thing being that the painter was unknown, the soldier unknown and his cause unknown.
To give one example of the almost-shocking connections made by Perry. In the section on collecting relics or trophies from pilgrimages we first see some tiny Japanese pieces, then some traditional European relics and then a denim biker jacket covered in gig badges. I love it. The Independent gave it one star. I think you’d have to lack blood in your veins to take a middling view. You probably don’t want to be too heavily into Egyptology and find that the presence of the god Bes is only because the artist-curator believes his teddy bear would have enjoyed partying with the aforementioned deity.
One thing The Independent didn’t like was that one of the points of the exhibition is to praise the anonymous creators art and to find art in everything. A bit much, they reason, that our Grayson’s ego gets in the way. I’m not sure that’s a fair criticism and even if it were the chances of finding an artist sans ego are so slim anyway. Yes, there is a lot of Perry’s work but for me its presence both enhanced my enjoyment of the other pieces and, for the first time, helped me ‘get’ what he himself is doing. A double whammy.
The exhibition ends with The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself. A flying ship that looks like it has flown to us straight from a Terry Gilliam film it is hung with anonymous little objects of beauty from the British Museum collection. It is surprisingly worthy of reverence … and also almost beyond kitsch.
I went on a Friday lunchtime and the place was doing a brisk business. No school trips, just serious-ish people who’d paid their money. But the nice thing was that the majority were walking round with a smile on their face and that, at the end of the day, is what I believe The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and indeed art itself is all about.