Grayson Perry - Who Are You? - Subverting Britain

Mandi Goodier

“Welcome to Britain. You are now in a safe country”—the voice of the Queen as a plane landed on British soil in 1956. Grayson Perry subverts British institutions in the National Portrait Gallery, as his Who Are You? exhibition grows in popularity.

Grayson Perry can hardly step a foot wrong at present. He is well on his way to securing national treasure status as more people become aware of his work; as they accept his mission to make contemporary art accessible to the general public. Until the 15th March, 14 of his "portraits" hold residency on the first floor of the National Portrait Gallery. Here they sit isolated (but getting all the attention) among the oppressive presence of various portraits and busts of very important, stern looking white men from the 19th century. This hetronormative environment seems to reject these colourful art objects, but they in return challenge them and assert themselves.

The Ashford Hijab - Grayson Perry
The Ashford Hijab

It isn’t exactly that the National Portrait Gallery, or any other of the national institutions, struggle to get the general public through the doors. However, these huge galleries, both Tates, National Gallery, Royal Academy and so on, become tick boxes on tourist’s itineraries. Very rarely do I enter a gallery and find hoards of people—and I’m talking the Saturday crowds, not the art critics, collectors, and artists—gathered around an art object discussing it, in depth and truly engaging with it. This is something Grayson has achieved with great success.

In part this is due to his hit TV series, Channel 4's Who Are You? The show reveals his process and approach of making art. In many ways, Grayson has revolutionised the art documentary. No longer are we faced with a very serious, posh English accent relaying art critique, steeped with intimidating, historical context (although if you pay attention Grayson does elude to both in his shows, he’s almost tricking his audience into being critical), or the flip side of that is the art show that in its attempt to bring art to the masses, debases it. The Guardian has even gone as far to say that Grayson has revolutionised the talk show, as we see him interviewing various personalities under the guise of art and research. Art becomes a license to access people at their most open in order to preserve their essence in the form of an art object. In making this TV show, Grayson has given the general public the tools to access his work. Yes, “art is challenging”, he claims in his 2013 BBC Reith Lectures, it isn’t supposed to be easy, but there is no reason to fear it.

The Huhne Vase - GRayson Perry
The Huhne Vase

It is no accident that this collection ended up in the National Portrait Gallery. Everything about it challenges both the environment it is in and what constitutes art. Here, we have the home of British portraiture, but Grayson’s portraits are not conventional, they are tapestries of journeys, sometimes they are pottery. This particular floor deals with the history of Britain. It's so-called historical heroes, who are politicians, royalty, aristocrats (although there are two rooms where we encounter cultural icons). It is rare that we see a female face, or person who isn’t white. Yet Grayson has approached a range of people from diverse representations of modern Britain. A white woman who converted to Islam (The Ashford Hijab), the boy who was born a girl and is going through gender change (I Am A Man), the queer couple who adopted a mixed-race child (Modern Family) and indeed, the white middle-aged middle-class male politician (The Huhne Vase). All are people who are on "identity fault lines". He embraces the idea that we live in a tolerant Britain, and then sucks his teeth fearing the worst in light of the intolerance the media presents. His is an optimistic view. We are a tolerant country.

Entering the gallery to his famed Comfort Blanket (see top image) Grayson sets up this premise subtly, intelligibly:

“A portrait of Britain to wrap yourself up in, a giant bank note; things we love and hate. A friend whose family had walked out of Hungary fleeing the Soviet invasion in 1956 said her mother referred to Britain as her ‘security blanket’. As their plane came into land in the UK, the tannoy relayed a message from the Queen saying ‘Welcome to Britain, you are now in a safe country’. People still come to our country for its stability, safety and rule of law. We should be proud of that.”

In a time when patriotism is becoming a dirty word, Britain needs people like Grayson Perry to remind us of Britain’s diversity, really giving us a reason to be proud. Nice one Grayson.

Grayson Perry

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