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Interview with Grayson Perry: The “The Guernica of the credit crunch”

Perry is about to show his most ambitious work, a huge tapestry depicting images of consumer excess and retribution

Grayson Perry guaranteed himself instant celebrity status when, at the 2003 Turner Prize dinner, resplendent in pink baby doll dress, he accepted the winning envelope with the inimitable statement: “Well, it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize!” Since then he has placed both pots and frocks firmly on the contemporary art map with each becoming ever more elaborate and intricate but always invested with a sharply critical barb: whether a traditional peasant outfit emblazoned with guns, massacred children and fighter planes or ornate vases decorated with images of sexual perversion, child brutality and art world pretensions. Perry has recently been diversifying more into prints, sculpture and textiles and next month, to accompany the publication of a major new book on his work [Thames & Hudson, £35] he unveils his most ambitious foray into fabric to date—the massive Walthamstow Tapestry, 15 metres long and three metres high—at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery on 9 October.

The Art Newspaper: The Walthamstow Tapestry resembles a kind of morality map with its blood trail leading from a foetus through the various ages of man and woman directly into the devil’s maw, with a shower of brand names en route.

Grayson Perry: It’s the idea of the futility of life and our misguided relationship to brands and how they are almost like little emotional away stations. When you read the names you have associated feelings that come with them and that can play off against the image that I’ve put with them, and you can see that as funny or unsettling. I wanted to make something darkly decorative—so there’s the 20th century passing by as well as our lives and the brands that we all recognise and can associate with different times in our lives.

TAN: How much should we read into the juxtapositions of brand names and images, such as Louis Vuitton next to a pissing man?

GP: I think it’s a bit lame if it’s a watertight idea. I try not to seal it up and say: “this means this” and also my ideas mainly tend to come after I’ve made something. I post-rationalise madly, and I think there’s no shame in that.

TAN: A dark view of rampant consumerism seems especially apposite in the current economic climate.

GP: I started working on the tapestry in September last year, after I’d finished a medal for the British Museum called For Faith in Shopping. This is a religious medal about shopping in Bond Street and has the Virgin Mary as a shopper. Then of course the credit crunch started to unfold and I was thrilled!

TAN: It turned your medal into one of commemoration rather than celebration.

GP: Exactly! And with this tapestry history carried on working with me. I do slightly see it as the Guernica of the credit crunch.

TAN: It’s on an epic scale. How was it made?

GP: It was machine-made completely to my specifications. I did a four-metre drawing which was quarter scale and then it was whooshed out. Even the tiny little mistakes are there. For example, in the places where the under-drawing hadn’t been quite rubbed out enough, there are a couple of little black pixels that show the pencil line under the pen line. It’s a very satisfying and relatively easy way of making an object from a drawing—and I’ll certainly do it again.

TAN: Along with ceramics, tapestries may have been valued in the past but now they are low on the artistic food chain.

GP: I like a challenge, and the fabric wall hanging has quite naff associations. But tapestry also has grand hall associations in terms of its scale and format. The title refers to the Bayeux tapestry but it also refers to Walthamstow where William Morris was born and I wondered whether, with all his love of fine craftsmanship, if he’d be spinning in his grave thinking about a digital tapestry. But Morris had this dilemma in that he wanted things to be beautiful and hand made and yet that immediately made them so expensive that only the rich could afford them.

TAN: Are you similarly ambivalent about technology?

GP: For the individual maker the internet is fantastic. I can make something that is a one-off and custom-made but at the same time relatively cheap. My hope is that eventually the internet and digital technology delivery systems will free the individual maker-craftsman-artist from the need to have a factory or a huge infrastructure. Mind you, the loom that made the Walthamstow Tapestry fills a warehouse! But at the same time it only takes one person to prepare the file and send it to the factory.

TAN: But you’ve also often said that you love the materiality of craft.

GP: The dilemma for a lot of artists these days is that in getting some fabrication shop to knock up their work, the fabrication shop is quite often so good that they do exactly what the artist wants and therefore they don’t have the mistakes which the artist would tolerate as their own personal style. The fabrication workshop will knock it out exactly as they want, but there’ll be something dead about it.

TAN: Are there any new pots in this show at Victoria Miro?

GP: Yes, I’m doing about half a dozen new ones. One of them shows world leaders at the wedding of [Perry’s teddy bear] Alan Measles and Claire Perry [the artist’s transvestite alter-ego]. Alan Measles has become a folk devil—Obama is kissing his hand. Hubris is one of my stylistic watchwords at the moment. The biggest piece has as its working title, Jane Austen in E17 because if I could name one cultural phenomenon that united a certain very British sensibility around class it would be Jane Austen. She’s an icon for polite English middle class culture.

TAN: So you haven’t lost your love of the subversive—your preoccupations have remained fairly consistent over the years.

GP: I do have consistent themes. My book [“Grayson Perry” by Jacky Klein] is in eight chapters: there’s branding and class; religion and folklore; sex and gender; war and politics; aesthetics and pottery; the art world and psychotherapy, and inner worlds. These are the things that still interest me. My creative process has been the same since I was at college: I take a template of an existing historical tradition, whether that be ceramics, tapestry, sculpture or printing, and I do my version of it. The subject is whatever I’m interested in when I have to make the decision about what the piece is going to be about.

TAN: Do you have any plans to branch out into other media?

GP: If the right idea crops up then I’ll have a go at it. Pots are becoming less a part of my output—right now prints are what I really enjoy. My pots are getting more elaborate and taking longer to make and if something goes wrong—which it can so easily—it’s heartbreaking. Their integrity is bound up with it not going wrong and that’s quite inhibiting at times so I don’t experiment as much as I should. You put all that work in and you don’t know if it’s going to come out right until you’ve got it out of the kiln, whereas with drawing and other media there is a constant dialogue with the material where if it isn’t right you scrub it out and draw it again.

TAN: But it must be amazing when you open the kiln and the piece is exactly how you wanted it?

GP: Yes, it’s a lovely moment, but they’re not frequent enough to keep me going. It’s for good reason that the Chinese call ceramics “the cruellest art.”

o “Grayson Perry” by Jacky Klein is published by Thames & Hudson on 5 October, £35­