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Reviews / Grayson Perry at Da Gadderie: Raw and hard hitting art that challenges preconceptions

Shetland Museum curator Dr Ian Tait and Shetland Amenity Trust chairwoman Ruth Mackenzie discussing the vase 'My Gods' during the exhibition opening on Friday evening. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“How do you put together an exhibition that consists of just two pots?” A question, Shetland Museum and Archives curator Dr Ian Tait asked himself when faced with the opportunity to exhibit two ceramic pieces by Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry.

Certainly, a challenging task but this latest exhibition at Da Gadderie, A Potted Biography, offers a gentle introduction to the reflective, satirical world of Perry’s contemporary art whilst also giving Shetlanders a chance to see art from one of Britain’s most talented and high profile modern artists.

The two vases on display are on loan from the Tate Gallery in London and are an autobiographical depiction of Perry’s life illustrating the turmoil of his inner world as well as his response to the challenges facing the identity of modern man.

Titled My Gods and Aspects of Myself, the two vases are aesthetically beautiful and classically formed yet on closer examination they portray the disturbing elements of Perry’s childhood which was shaped by alcoholism and abuse as well as the darker undercurrents running through the veins of humanity.

The powerful essence of Perry’s ceramics is that he forces us to confront aspects of British culture that we might easily ignore and repress like the behavioural absurdity of the class system and the machismo manner many men are expected to culturally adhere to.

He also conveys these feelings through his cross dressing as his alter ego, Clare, which has become an intrinsic part of his artistic identity and expression.

Tait describes how this exhibition “tries to explain the biography of the man, Grayson Perry. All the motifs on his pots are symbolic of something.

“There’s elements of domestic strife, warfare but there’s also harmony, alter ego versus macho man, lurid aspects but sweet things also.

“Our challenge was how to get folk in Shetland to engage in these vases and decrypt what is on them. So, we decided to ask folk to choose an item, which in the same way as a motif on a Perry vase is emblematic or resonant or meaningful in their life.

“We wanted this to be for everyone not just for artists, but a range of folk from across Shetland of all ages and backgrounds. We had a great response.”

The result is My Potted Biography, a selection of 22 unique, treasured objects that sit alongside Perry’s vases and offer a precious glimpse into everyday items that have shaped the course of individual lives and streams of memories.

Ranging from a rusty basin discovered on childhood ramblings in Sellafirth to a pair of peerie shoes belonging to a lass who died in 1943 to a toy monkey who could easily be the cousin to Perry’s childhood teddy bear Alan Measles, a character that features extensively in his artwork.

A portrait of Grayson Perry by local artist Dirk Robertson. Photo: Shetland News

These items are the link that show how the ordinary aspects of our daily lives can have a pivotal influence in who we are as people which on a larger scale is the same as Perry illustrates in his art.

His art might be more raw and hard hitting but nevertheless he challenges our preconceptions and forces us to consider how we could transform the moulds impressed upon us by everyday life and culture.

Another challenge by the museum staff was how to make Perry’s two vases more interactive and fun for visitors.

Yvonne Reynolds, lifelong learning co-ordinator at the museum explains how they “recruited the talented local artist Dirk Robertson who helped create an installation piece within the exhibition, which is a bit of a shrine to Perry’s life, using objects symbolizing his life as well as an old wooden TV from the 1980s which we rigged up to show three documentary films from the Tate Gallery on Perry speaking about his art and winning the 2003 Turner Prize.”

There are a programme of events scheduled with this exhibition with ceramic workshops for anyone interested in learning how to make a pot and decorate it as well as gallery talks for schoolchildren and a family day where people can come along and make a biography and bring something in that is precious to them and share their stories.

Ultimately though this exhibition is unique for Shetland not only because it is the first time a Turner award winning artist has been exhibited here but also because Perry’s art dares us to confront our prejudices and preconceptions about art and what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

We could look at Perry and simply see a colourful man in woman’s clothes but go beyond that and you realise he has a lot to say which is profound and helps us to see how art can be a powerful medium for social and individual change.

Alex Purbrick

A Potted Biography runs from today (Saturday 2 November) to Friday 11 January 2020 in Da Gadderie at Shetland Museum and Archives.

A programme of events and activities associated with the exhibition will be published on the Shetland Museum and Archives website shortly and shared via their social media feeds.