Wander through most major museums and you’ll find a remarkable number of works with no name. Either lost to the mists of time or never recorded because the work was considered that of an artisan rather than that of an artist, the names of those who created these remarkable works long to be remembered.  At the British Museum, home to over 8 million nameless wonders from cultures spanning both the globe and the ages, those nameless artists are finally getting their due. In Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Grayson Perry, winner of the 2003 Turner Prize, curates a show matching these unknown craftsmen (and women) with his name-brand star power to raise the public consciousness of the talents of these neglected artists.  If Perry succeeds, he may finally put the “art” back in the name “artisan.

“If the world were to put its camera-phone away for a moment and use its eyes it might take away a more profound image of itself,” Perry writes in the catalog to the show. “What I mean is seeing oneself, one’s personal concerns as a human being, reflected back in the objects made long ago by fellow men and women with similar, equally human, concerns.” Perry freely admits his indebtedness to the artistry of the past in his contemporary art works.  For him, we lose a great deal of ourselves in losing our ability to appreciate and connect with the works of the past and, by extension, the artists and cultures that shaped them. “When I began working with the British Museum [in 2008], I thought: why not reverse this process of response?” Perry recounts the origin of the exhibition. “Why not, I thought, make the works I am inspired to create, and find objects in this vast collection that respond to them?... I invite you to view these artefacts by reading them through my lens.” Perry thus offers his own work as a gateway through which to view the past, as if he had influenced them, rather than the other way around.

From the British Museum’s vast collection, Perry selects an eclectic cast of 190 works to star in his passion play of the neglected past: Polynesian fetishes, Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe, 20th century badges, an 1882 coin featuring a bust of Queen Victoria re-engraved so she’s sporting a beard and boating hat. Perry even pulled from the Prints and Drawings Department of the British Museum an appropriate roadmap for the exhibition to follow based fancifully on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perry presents his own roadmap in a new tapestry titled, Map of Truths and Beliefs. The rest of the works Perry contributes as his “lenses” on the past hint at the nameless works from the British Museum collection, but always with a Perry-esque twist reflecting his set of “truths and beliefs.”  Another new piece, The Rosetta Vase (shown above), recalls works of pottery from the past with characteristic individual touches by Perry, such as an infant figure (presumably Perry himself) with body parts marked as “fantasy world,” “autobiography,” “career enhancement,” “mischief,” and “celebrity.” A gnarled tree also on the vase features tree houses on the branches, one of which is marked “Post-Diana Society,” a nod to the cult of personality surrounding the dead Lady Di. Like the British Museum’s Rosetta Stone to which it alludes, The Rosetta Vase hopes to serve as a key to unlock the lost languages of the cultural past.

The central work of the exhibition is Perry’s work titled The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an elaborately decorated, cast-iron coffin-ship that Perry calls “a memorial to makers and builders, all those countless un-named skilled individuals who have made the beautiful man-made wonders of history.” Quoting Jacob Bronowski, Perry proclaims that the great monuments of the world, from the pyramids to modern mausoleums, “are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end, the man they commemorate is the builder.” Perry hopes to turn artifacts such as Sutton Hoo (also in the British Museum) into “Sutton who?” in our minds, thus transferring the grandeur and wonder from the subject of the art to the makers.

I admire Perry’s desire to “reverse” the “process of response” and make us see the works of the past with fresh eyes through his own work.  I especially applaud his willingness to be an Every(wo)man for every woman and man who expressed her or himself in art but never enjoyed the prizes he has.  (If you think that’s a pun on Perry’s transvestism, you are correct, but I think that Perry’s penchant for crossing gender barriers goes hand in hand with his crossing of space and time in this exhibition.) However, I’m dubious as to how feasible reversing the course of influence is.  Knowing that Perry comes chronologically after the other works is a fact that at least my mind is unwilling to suspend.  That willing suspension of time-based influence lies at the heart of the experience Perry wants each viewer to have—that they must have to achieve his goal fully. But even if we can only see through the “lens” of Perry’s work as through any philosophically challenging pedagogical lens—darkly—then at least he’s shed more light on these lost artists/artisans than we could perceive previously.

One of the many, many inscriptions on Perry’s The Rosetta Vase reads, “Hold your beliefs lightly.” Read in one way, it echoes the call of Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman to question everything we think we know and believe about art versus craft and what constitutes art versus artifact.  By letting go of prejudices that divide, we unify art and artisan and recover the spirit of the past and the people residing ghostly behind it.  Read in another way, that inscription may be a warning from Perry to himself, who believes that it is possible to reverse, however fleetingly, the course of history and imagine the present influencing the past.  I sincerely hope Perry succeeds, but at the very least, he’s imagined and realized a monumental (in the best sense) failure.

[Image: Grayson Perry. The Rosetta Vase, 2011. Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Copyright Grayson Perry. Photo: Stephen White.]

[Many thanks to the British Museum for providing me with the image above and a copy of the catalog to Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, which runs through February 19, 2012.]

[Many thanks to friend Hugh for prompting me to look at Perry’s work.]