Do you remember, oh do you remember
the 8th of August? The town was an ember!
The shopping, the burning, the policemen we fought!
O arson, O mayhem, what trainers we got!
Oh, I don’t know. Here it is Riot Day, One Year On, and I’ve been trying for days and days to write a post about Grayson Perry’s magnificent tapestries. But there is some kind of connection.
They’re based on William Hogarth, ‘A Rake’s Progress’. They also draw on religious imagery, as above (though in fairness, this picture is compositionally an almost exact copy of the final one in Hogarth’s series, so Hogarth clearly also knew to draw on the Old Masters). They follow our hero (Tim, not Tom, Rakewell, this time) through his life’s journey among the English classes, paying as much attention to the telling detail as did Hogarth. They are an examination of our taste, the aesthetic decisions we make in our negotiations with the world; our morés as expressed through our stuff. Joyous, chilling, very funny, and ultimately also tragic.
He researched these by spending a year going among the ‘class tribes’, dressing like them, observing their rituals, looking at as many houses as he could, interviewing their owners about the why’s, the whats, the whatnots. It was all filmed for a three-part television series, ‘In the Best Possible Taste’, and you can still I think watch it on 4oD, but you have to register. Small price to pay.
Grayson Perry! I just love him. He’s so capacious, I’m not sure anyone else now alive in Britain could have done this project. He’s an outsider everywhere and cheerfully so, and thus an honorary insider everywhere. He’s intelligent, open-minded, and razor-sharp: nothing gets past him. He’s genuinely interested in people. (That’s rare enough.) He thinks in images: watch in the last pisode the moment where he has the idea for the stag in the penultimate tapestry. And, as you’ll see if you watch the programmes, he has a truly great laugh.
The work itself is hyper, mega, intense; as Perry says, almost like a giant Gillray! But also kind of cartoonish (well – like Gillray, okay), and I can even see a bit of Heath in there, the Punch cartoonist. They are melodrama, EastEnders, Gothic. They look drawn; they are drawn. The Hogarthian imagery is astoundingly effective: Hogarth’s faithful pug (Trump) undergoes his own journey in every tapestry; he is time – always with us, no matter who much we think ours is the only ‘now’.
The religious imagery gives resonance to the everyday, beds it into the bit of the brain where things are meant to be meaningful. And the fabricness of the project – the sheer – and I think Perry himself would love this being mentioned – the sheer over-the-top expensiveness of the tapestries – actually makes them a physically reassuring presence. The tapestry form is redolent, time-laden, class-laden, it’s a massive statement in itself.
You’re not going to get that on a postcard. And not on a website.
Grayson Perry says:
The tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design but for this project I focus(ed) on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.
The tapestries really do show us ourselves. Whoever you are, no matter how much you think you’re somehow ‘above taste’, you will feel skewered – you will recognise something about yourself that makes you cringe. They are generous, surprisingly abundant, rich in colour, gorgeously, poignantly woven, quietly textural, and massive. Epic. And they expose the hypocrisies, the fact that the world we make isn’t the world any of us claim to want. The aesthetic confusion that masks our existential confusion. The fact that, as time stands still in this series (note the iPhones throughout), and all the tapestries remain in the room at the same time, Tim Rakewell remains the slightly lost child, the embarrassed adolescent, the mortified young adult, the smug rich guy. He dies beneath a sign saying ‘Toys R Us’.
We need this, I really think so. We need something or someone to show us who we are: what bubbles to the surface, and maybe why. It’s a shame he couldn’t have done one of the riots.
They’re only on until Saturday, your chances to see them are running out. Victoria Miro Gallery, between Angel and Old Street. Really: go if you can. And read the visitors’ book by the stairs.
And I’ll just throw this in, from Robert Hughes, who died yesterday. What the rioters would make of it, I don’t know.
The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory and its occasional nastiness, not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.