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Identity parade in Brexit Britain

21 July 2017

Jonathan Evens views Grayson Perry’s show

Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London (photo Robert Glowacki) © Grayson Perry

Two nations: Grayson Perry, Matching Pair, 2017, glazed ceramic diptych

Two nations: Grayson Perry, Matching Pair, 2017, glazed ceramic diptych

GRAYSON PERRY may be the only person in Britain to have a handle on what is currently going on in our divided nation. His exhibition at the Serpentine includes Matching Pair, two ceramic pots created as his attempt to capture the thoughts of our divided country a year after the EU referendum. Harnessing social media, Perry invited the public to contribute ideas, images, and phrases to cover the surface of these two enormous new pots: one for the Brexiteers and one for the Remainers.

A subsequent Channel 4 documentary, Grayson Perry: Divided Britain, filmed Perry bringing the two groups together to view the pots and explore what currently divides us nationally, while also acknowledging common identities and shared concerns. Identity is a key theme for an artist who inhabits dual identities, as both Grayson and Claire, his alter ego, and who, therefore, wryly plays on the boundaries between our multiple identities.

In exploring this principal theme of identity, Perry takes as his tools the multiplicity of popular culture. He is a polymath working across multiple genres — assemblages, ceramics, documentary, sculpture, textiles, performance and prints — to turn his craft-based practice into conceptual art and take his concepts outside the gallery to inhabit the popular culture that they celebrate and criticise.

By inhabiting a dual identity, he is able to identify and empathise with straight and gay, men and women, middle and working class, while always seeing other perspectives.

© 2017 Robert GlowackiInstallation view: Grayson Perry’s Serpentine Gallery exhibition, including his sculpture Our MotherThe issue of multiple identities is one with which the Church struggles to engage. Yet our scriptures and tradition do provide a vocabulary that could be used in exploring the issues that Perry raises. We believe in a creator God who contains all possible identities and who, though One, is known through the multiple identities of Father, Son, and Spirit. This God is imaged in scripture as both father and mother, and many other metaphors and names are used to identify her/his characteristics — rock, king, shepherd, lamb, hen, eagle, etc.

Carrying such multiplicity is the burden of all those who bring to birth, as imaged in Perry’s sculpture Our Mother. Similarly, Reclining Artist sees the artist nakedly open to all the objects and images that he embraces. As a result, he may be the perfect artist for our troubled times, because he absorbs into himself and his creations a multiplicity of references, which he mirrors back to our culture, but refracted through the perspective of his dual identities.

This makes his work prophetic as it re-presents ourselves and our culture, but in ways that playfully challenge and criticise our notions of identity and the basis for these notions. Marriage Shrine is a deliberately simple celebration of union, Perry’s own marriage, in the style of an Outsider Art work, while Couple visiting Marriage Shrine has Perry and his wife in folk dress visiting the Marriage Shrine. One is naïvely celebratory, while the other is wryly ironic; both are fully realised works in their own right.

Perry’s post-modern art affirms a multiplicity of identities and asks us to do the same.


“Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” is at the Serpentine Gallery, to the south of the Serpentine Bridge, Kensington Gardens, London W2, until 10 September. Phone 020 7402 6075. www.serpentinegalleries.org

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