Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, British Museum, London

A most uninspiring potted history as the tomb raider takes an ego trip

Tiffany Jenkins
Friday 14 October 2011 00:00
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Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize-winning potter and transvestite, has been given a gift by the British Museum: the opportunity to delve into the collection and create an exhibition from the artefacts that caught his imagination. For two years, he rooted around the basement, before appearing with this selection, curated alongside his own work – old pieces and the new inspired by what he found.

Perry brings together beautiful pieces including Buddhist votive offerings, Polynesian fetishes, Japanese portable shrines, and intricate embroidery next to his own tapestries, organised into themes of the sacred, "magick", maps, sexuality and gender, patina and texture.

A pink and blue Harley-Davidson, with "Humility" scrawled across it, and a shrine to his teddy bear from childhood – Alan Measles – on the back, sits at the entrance. The point is simple: all sorts of objects can inspire passion and pilgrimage. It's an observation that requires greater elaboration that he grants it here.

A fresh artistic eye could show connections that a curator might not see, creating unexpected relationships and insights. But there is little aesthetic rational behind the selections, which appear to have been chosen on the basis of their similar purpose. A gold ceremonial headdress from Ghana is juxtaposed with Perry's own Early English Motorcycle Helmet, made to look ancient – aside another with a cartoon face. A couple of badges from the 20th century hang in a line above one from a pilgrimage.

The objects sit next to each other, rather than speak to each other. They are placed, less to delve into the connections and differences between them, and the devotion they might inspire, and more to worship at Perry's ego and his tired irreverence. Despite the lip-service to the anonymous "makar", it is after all titled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, this is a show that fails to engage with the work of others, choosing only to mimic them.

A new pot by Perry – The Rosetta Vase, 2011 – a riff on the eponymous artefact that genuinely increased our understanding of other cultures, bears the legend "HOLD YOUR BELIEFS LIGHTLY". It's reproduced on a bag he designed for sale in the shop. This sums up the central message of the show, and explains why it is so uninspiring. For the original craftsman who made these magnificent objects were people who believed in something beyond themselves, unlike this artist. A little humility on the potter's part would not go amiss.

To 19 February (020 7323 8181)

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