Review by Henry Little
Branded Emotion: Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009)
As an apocalyptic visionary Grayson Perry isn’t quite what you would expect. Now riotously well-know and represented by the London art dealing scene’s First Lady (Victoria Miro), Perry’s rise to celebrity status and art super-stardom has been what some might call meteoric. It seems but a only a few seasons ago (2003) that Perry was thrust into the limelight as the Turner Prize-winning transvestite potter. It was this event which gave the artist truly national (and international) clout and which initiated the media frenzy surrounding him. It was the artist’s pots (which depict all manner of uncannily childlike and bizarre creatures cavorting across ceramic canvases) and persona which caught the public’s imagination. And yet, as seen at the recent show at Victoria Miro, it seems that his strongest work can be found not in three, but rather two dimensions.
From the blood of birth to the pallor of death the Walthamstow Tapestry is a humorous yet utterly sincere depiction of the ideological structure of contemporary society. In Perry’s sprawling work, measuring 3 x 15 m and executed to the artist’s drawings by highly skilled Ghentian craftsman, the everyman, spat out at birth in a pool of blood, is doomed and predestined to spend his life navigating a chaotic yet banal landscape of brands and consumerism. Whilst the press release for the exhibition at Miro, and hence the subsequent articles, marks out Perry’s interest in Malaysian fabrics as the primary influence at work, it might be suggested that in fact a return to the eleventh century yields a far more insightful predecessor. The Bayeux Tapestry, the grandly heroic recounting of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, seems to resonate far more with the Walthamstow Tapestry, especially as a narrative led document. Whilst Perry’s work is of course not a literal account of events it is no less than a sideways glance at the story of contemporary society. Perry’s tapestry seems to be a grandiose, tongue-in-cheek historicisation of the present and one can only excitedly imagine what people will think of it as they look back at our world a thousand years hence. I can almost see it now, displayed reverentially in a dimly lit room at the heart of the British Museum as hushed OAPs and bored children siphon past it on a Sunday afternoon in 3009: ‘is this really what it was like mummy’‘
Much of the detail has been plucked from our daily lives. The ‘ship of fools’ is perhaps one of the funnier, but like the rest of the work also one of the more poignant, elements: a doomed clutch of financial institutions including Enron, RBS, HSBC and Northern Rock. A joke which everyone apart from bankers will no doubt appreciate. What is perhaps most disconcerting is that (almost) everyone will know, and even more worryingly have some form of emotional response to, each of the brands depicted. My personal reaction was to scan the length of the tapestry reading all of the brand names, nodding in approval as I recognised ones with whom I had a personal connection. Some I knew but felt no emotion for, whilst others created a warm glow inside. I should perhaps not mention this but the sight of the Dell name inspired the greatest, and fondest, reaction in me. It was like hearing the name of an old and much loved friend. Is that weird, or just a reflection of the dedicated (and competitively priced) support they’ve shown me over the years’ I got to know Anup Rajan of Dell customer support (speaking from Bangalore) rather well in the several hours it took him to navigate me through the reinstallation process of Windows XP. Why shouldn’t I feel attached to Dell’
It was reactions within myself to the portrayal of a brand-led societal identity that triggered my appreciation of the work and its direct relevance to the here and now. Brand names are major beacons within our lives. They have seeped and sublimated their way into our psyches, forming an irremovable framework in our minds. This is no doubt due to the power of marketing and advertising: products and companies with taglines such as ‘Always there for you’ and ‘Support you can rely on’ insipidly worm their way into your heart. They want to be your friend, you naively think.
The writer is a gallerist (www.hrlcontemporary.com) and a fine art consultant to the London School of Economics.