Grayson Perry Puts ‘Drag King’ Coins in Museum Show: Interview

"Pilgrimage to the British Museum" (2011) by Grayson Perry, in "The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" at the British Museum. Source: British Museum via Bloomberg

Grayson Perry is soberly dressed this morning: in jeans and a faded-blue zip-up jacket.

The artist, who collected the 2003 Turner Prize in lipstick and a purple frock, is presenting his show, “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman,” at the British Museum in London. It’s Perry’s pick of the collection, mixed with art of his own making.

The titular work is a cast-iron boat created by Perry. Adorned with replicas of museum items, it’s the showcase for one of the British Museum’s prehistoric flint hand axes. All around it are thematic rooms packed with amulets, pots, jewels, mini-shrines and costumes that all look like Grayson Perry works even when they’re not.

“I was instinctively picking up on things that had my handwriting in them, in a way, or reflected aspects of my personality,” says Perry as we settle on a bench, repeatedly interrupted by greeters and camera-wielders.

“This is like a tour around my head: my obsessions, concerns, perversities, beliefs,” he says.

For illustration, I ask him to pick out something in the “Sexuality & Gender” section. He mentions two Victorian “drag king” coins -- re-engraved to make Queen Victoria look male.

“Some professional engraver, I imagine on his lunch break, has given her a sex change!” he cheers. “Quite a transgressive move in those days!”

Perry, 51, is well known in the U.K., if nothing else for cross-dressing. At the Turner Prize ceremony, he confounded tabloid readers further by posing with his wife and daughter.

Pink Motorbike

His other object of affection is teddy bear Alan Measles -- a substitute father figure ever since Perry’s dad walked out when he was five. Too precious to be loaned even to the British Museum, Alan has stunt doubles. One sits outside the show on a pink motorbike that Perry rode on a tour of Germany.

The Essex-born artist’s fame contrasts with the anonymity of the craftsmen represented in the museum’s works. That irony is not lost on him.

“I’m very aware of what I call Picasso napkin syndrome, in that I have a kind of market-given Midas touch,” he says. “I actually try to rein myself back from exploiting that.”

That the museum’s treasures are “made by completely unknown people” is an “interesting counterpoint,” says Perry. “The magic of the known artist using his shamanic power to transform base material to gold is wearing a bit thin.”

Acerbic Potter

Perry the potter is also a shrewd, acerbic social commentator. “You Are Here” (2011), a glazed ceramic pot in the show’s entrance, has cartoon characters explaining why they’ve come to a show. One lists the buzz, the other a free ticket. A third says: “I just wanted to satisfy myself that I am more clever than this celebrity charlatan.”

Where does the awareness come from? “I’m married to a psychotherapist and a writer, and the conversation at home is often along those lines,” says Perry. “It’s about having a clear-eyed view of the world.”

“Our most interior lens is the lens of our emotions, and that lens is distorted and built in our earliest years,” he says, sounding momentarily like a shrink himself.

When we last met in October 2008 -- a month after the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. -- Perry said his art was recession-proof. Has that proven true?

He laughs, and says yes. “I don’t make much work,” he says. “Rarity value is always a good career move in the art world.”

We conclude with an exchange about the financial crisis. On one wall, opposite a 17th-century Persian map of the eastern hemisphere, is Perry’s own map: a tapestry marking pilgrimage sites that include Davos and Wall Street (along with Mecca, Silicon Valley, Hiroshima and the Champs-Elysees).

“One thing I’ve learned over the last few years is how emotional and fluid it is,” says Perry of global finance. “It’s just as susceptible to the whims and madnesses of the collective human endeavor as the art world is.”

“Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” is at the British Museum, London, through Feb. 19, 2012. The show is supported by AlixPartners LLP with Louis Vuitton U.K.

Information: or +44-20-7323-8299.

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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