In Sydney, a dialogue on British artist Grayson Perry with the Museum of Contemporary Art’s chief curator, Rachel Kent.
“One of the great enemies of the contemporary artist is self-consciousness,” Grayson Perry writes in his funny, sharp art book Playing the Gallery. (He also deftly swipes the “linguistic arms race,” “borrowed importance,” and default “detached irony.”) After enjoying the Turner Prize winner’s candid exhibition My Pretty Little Art Career at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I had a dialogue on the artist with chief curator, Rachel Kent.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Why Grayson Perry now? What do you hope people take away from the exhibition?
RACHEL KENT: I hope people will be surprised and challenged by this exhibition and the extraordinary, vast body of work it represents. I hope it prompts visitors to ask questions about themselves and the world they (we) live in—to reflect on aspects of identity, or choices in life, they might not otherwise find time to do very often.
It’s incredibly varied in terms of medium—ceramics, drawings and collage, prints, sculpture, tapestry—and a range of subject matter is explored through the different works. Some works consider questions around gender and sexuality, a very pertinent theme in Australia today, especially as we question ‘traditional’ modes of male identity and how that has changed over time.
Taste, aesthetics, value, and judgments are another theme: for example, what is it that makes us judge something as having aesthetic value, or not; why the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ or categories of art and craft; what is ‘taste’ and why we should question or re-think it.
AB: Can you unpack the title a bit?
RK: This exhibition takes its title from a ceramic pot on display in the entry gallery, called My Pretty Little Art Career. It’s a playful and beautiful piece, its surface incised with references to museums and galleries, curators and collectors, who have been significant for Perry’s career from the beginning. It’s rather like a three-dimensional CV or history of Perry’s art career.
It follows on from an earlier piece (not in this display) which Perry had made while reflecting on the ever-fraught questions that artists face regarding their career development, and who does or does not support/exhibit/collect their work. For that piece, he asked his gallerist to make a “top 50” list of institutions, curators, and collectors around the world which he then used as subject matter for the pot. Ironically, one of the featured collectors later acquired the work for their collection!
AB: Was there anything about curating the exhibition that surprised you?
RK: I am constantly surprised by the variety and freshness of Perry ’s art over a 30-plus year period. He has experimented with medium, style, imagery, technique, and you can see a clear development over time too: a progression of ability and a widening of interests. Not much is left unexplored, from the personal to the political, and I love the humour (and often self-deprecation) that permeates much of the work too.
AB: Walking through the exhibition, I appreciate Perry ’s sense of humour, too. Can you elaborate on this aspect of him and his work?
RK: Perry has often spoken about the importance of humour as a tool for self-reflection and awareness. It’s a gentle way to invite people to look at themselves—at serious issues—that might otherwise be very challenging. He spoke in his artist’s talk at the Sydney Opera House of comedians being the “greatest artists” in his opinion, because of their ability to reveal truth through humour.
AB: In situ, there’s an entertaining and illuminating dialogue between you and Grayson Perry in his London studio. “I think the principle influence hasn’t been the fact that I walk around in a frock, it’s my tolerance for embarrassment. My tolerance for being uncool, my tolerance for not wanting to be fashionable, not worrying about what the hipsters are thinking.” What is a formative embarrassment for Grayson Perry you find compelling?
RK: Perry ’s interest in cross dressing from a very early age—around 12 years old—has been hugely formative in both his personal and creative, artistic life. He has spoke frequently of the challenges associated with transvestism, from the enormous secrecy and personal difficulty he faced at a young age, to his acceptance and embrace of cross dressing as an adult, along with any potential embarrassment it entailed. He has never tried to be ‘cool’ but is always himself, no matter what. Humility and resilience are (I believe) very much at the heart of Perry’s identity—they are also qualities to be sought out and admired in us all. Cross dressing and questions around masculine identity remain central to his art and life, and form a strong thematic in his ceramic works on display at the MCA.
AB: “Art, particularly over the last few decades, has had this idea that concepts and ideas are the important things. It’s the concept of it and that the execution and the sensual, visual pleasure is somehow by the by and somehow not interesting,” Perry adds. “I wanted to sort of challenge that.” How do you think he achieves this?
RK: Perry has frequently described his ceramic pots as “stealth bombs.” They are objects that look pleasing to the eye and have a strong aesthetic quality that draws people in; but once you look more closely, they contain an array of questions and challenges through their subject matter, both personal and political. You could equally call them Trojan horses in this respect.
AB: Entertainer, provocateur, activist, class-analyst—what interests you most about Grayson Perry?
RK: I enjoy many aspects of Perry’s art, including his ability to take on a wide range of themes that are both personally specific and widely applicable to us all. After all, do you know anyone who is not—at least on the inside—filled with some sense of anxiety about their abilities, appearance, or success in life? It is utterly human to doubt, and Perry’s art reveals all of these uncertainties and questions. It also probes the assumptions, judgments, and contradictions that make us who we are, both good and bad.
AB: It’s the MCA’s 25th anniversary. In a former life, I looked after City Gallery Wellington’s publicity, and was involved in such memorable projects as Sam Taylor-Wood and Yayoi Kusama, which came to us via the MCA. (Another MCA project The Lumière Reader loved was The Clock.) Tell me about one or two highlights for you during your years curating at MCA?
RK: I would have to say that all of the above (and more!) form highlights for me. A recent highlight was the completion and launch of the beautiful new MCA building in March 2012, and with it, the curatorial program I developed around the theme of ‘time’—which included Christian Marclay’s marvelous 24 hour video installation The Clock, which you mention, and a large international project entitled Marking Time. I like projects such as these, which are very serious in intent, but also find ways to open contemporary art up to a wide range of audiences and experiences. It’s such a privilege to be able to introduce new and challenging works, and the artists who create them, to Sydney and beyond.
AB: I’m pleased film is getting increasing prominence at MCA. Can you elaborate on why this is?
RK: Film is a terribly influential medium for so many artists, Perry among them. He has made television documentaries with Channel 4 on a range of themes that fascinate him and inform his art (social class and taste, identity, masculinity), and like most people, is a big consumer of film in his personal life.
He was very happy when invited to put together a list of films that he enjoys or finds somehow influential to accompany his exhibition. There were no parameters in terms of style, theme or period—simply a request to tell us what he enjoys and why. One such film was the recent Disney animation Inside Out, which explored the emotional headspace of a young girl, with each emotion represented in character form—anger, jealousy, fear, kindness, and so forth. Emotional states are so important within Perry ’s art practice and you can see them explored—the good with the not so—in his print works, for example.
AB: What do you say to Grayson Perry’s detractors? Do you think he’s still getting under people’s skin?
RK: Perry likes to pose a challenge through his art, be it in relation to social class and judgments around taste; or questions around sexuality and gendered identity. Some people might find this confronting, for example in relation to the sexual imagery tackled in some of the ceramic works—he himself says that early on, he tried to ‘shock’ through his art—but there is so much humour and pathos in his art too. It can be painful, funny, moving, and challenging all at once.
It remains so today and he has widened his rage of enquiry as his career develops, always seeking out fresh subject matter—and artistic materials—to explore. I’d say to approach it with open eyes, heart and mind, as you never know what might strike a chord with your own life or identity. It can be a mirror, warts and all.
‘Grayson Perry—My Pretty Little Art Career’ is on at the Museum of Contemporary Art until May 1.
Alexander Bisley visited the MCA courtesy of Destination New South Wales. For further information on what’s happening in the arts, exhibitions, and cultural scene in Sydney, visit Sydney.com.
Map of Nowhere (blue)
2008, colour etching from five plates
Edition of 15 plus 4 AP
Published by Paragon Press, Collection the Artist
Image courtesy Paragon Press and Victoria Miro, London © Grayson Perry
In Praise of Shadows
2005, glazed ceramic
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London, © Grayson Perry
The Rosetta Vase
2011, glazed ceramic
British Museum Collection
Image courtesy the Artist, Victoria Miro, London and the Trustees of the British Museum, London © Grayson Perry
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal
2012, from the series The Vanity of Small Differences, edition of 6 plus 2 Aps
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London, © Grayson Perry
 Another notable, provocative comment of Grayson’s in your dialogue: “And the idea of being popular and having a popular voice and being accessible, often there’s many people in the art world seem incapable of having conversations with human beings. You know they speak international art English, bullocks. I thought by now the message would have got out, don’t talk like that. But you go to a Biennale or you listen to some curator introducing a show and you think, ‘Who the hell are they speaking to?’ Incapable of basic human communication: it’s shocking.”