Have a look around your current living space. Open up a few of the drawers and cupboards. Are they crammed with things, crammed with stuff? We all manage to accumulate things and, even if you de-clutter, if left for a few months the stuff accumulates again. What we accumulate is all a matter of taste.
The current exhibition at The Walker Art Gallery by Grayson Perry,
‘The Vanity of Small Differences’, presents a series of tapestries that are littered with things. A body of work that displays an impressive attention to detail and telling commentary on society today. The exhibition was created during the filming of the artist’s Channel 4 documentary, All in the Best Possible Taste (2012).
Perry was inspired by Hogarth’s 1733 work, A Rake’s Progress, which tells the tale of a young man who inherits a fortune, tries to integrate himself into high society – with all its pompous airs and graces – squanders his wealth and ends up dying in a madhouse. Perry’s tapestries chart the life and ‘class journey’ made by the fictional Tim Rakewell from working-class origins to fame and fortune.
The pieces are bold tableaus, woven Polaroids. Perry has put the mirror up to society and reproduced what he has seen. This exploration of British taste is impressive. ‘It is all part of life’s rich tapestry’, words that I often cite when explaining the insanity of life and the varied things that can occur. It is all here: from the politics of consumerism, mobile technology, to celebrity culture. At the core is Perry’s belief that
Class is something bred into us like a religious faith.
Each tapestry is littered with objects that can evoke memories, a 70s horse ornament, fake fire and industrial portraiture. The action that takes place is subtly thought-provoking, tattooed and toned cage fighters presenting gifts to a new-born baby, while in another, a suburbanite is rapidly vacuuming the Astroturf lawn.
As Hogarth captured the Britain of his day, so Perry has ‘gone on a safari’ around the country to identify its ‘taste tribes’. His findings resonate through his work. The gym now as one of the last strands of community, replacing the pride of working industry. The business of football as a tribal industry, where winning a trophy is like bringing a stag back from the hunt and club shirts are like a talisman, a marked indication of the tribe you belong to. Females use makeup to create a persona, a tribal mask that is constructed to indicate a degree of artifice. This alter ego comes out to play at the weekend, but who is it for?
The Guardian reader, cultivating an organic life of sustainability, filled with chickens, vegetables and cupcakes. The old aristocracy, an endangered species. In contemporary society, the aristocratic family coat of arms is now made up with corporate logos. Idols are now more I.T.ols, with the Gods of I.T. being worshipped. Bow down to Steve Jobs, genuflect to Bill Gates, please. Or salute the god of social mobility, Jamie Oliver, and his quest to feed us properly.
Perry’s work is both parody and celebration. What I like is the way he looks at his subject matter with an accurate critical eye, but never ridicules or patronises them. This is in complete contrast to the work of photographer Martin Parr. I find Parr’s work has a lack of humility or compassion towards the people he shoots.
My favourite image was the final tapestry that illustrates a horrific car crash. Once again the detail is symbolic, a shattered mobile phone, a shredded cover of a Hello-style magazine that has the protagonist’s wedding snaps on the cover. An onlooker takes pictures on a mobile phone to send out to the net, to make the tragedy go viral. The retail logos that shine in the background give off a subliminal message, Dreams/To Let/ Toys’R’ Us.
We are all but toys, perhaps with dreams to rent.