Who Are You ? is an exhibition of 14 works of art by Grayson Perry currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery until April 2015 (NB entrance is FREE!). It is a series of portraits which take us on a journey of discovery through the peculiarities of our different ways and forms of being English – our ‘Mongrel Nation’ (No. 2, The Comfort Blanket tapestry) – and how we express our identities.
My visit was an opportunity for many peculiar conversations and negotiations. It involved a serpentine walk through the whole 1st floor of the NPG and weaving through the 16 or 17 rooms to find the exhibition works among the permanent collection of portraits there required a mix of skill and luck (I was actually unable to find two of the works, No 11, I am a man, and No 12, The Earl of Essex).
No 1. A Map of Days
Self-portrait: Grayson Perry sees himself as a walled and fortified city, within which the many different locations of his being are revealed. My dear TRIXY was dancing all over this one looking for the artist in every nook and cranny, but he was very good at hiding and she couldn’t find him anywhere.
No 2. Comfort Blanket
Anatomy of an Englishman : at the centre of the large Comfort Blanket tapestry, and ‘Fear of Embarrassment’ covers his heart (gender male by the look of the Y fronts). Grayson Perry might have used a different phrase – ‘Sense of Shame’, ‘Disgrace’ or ‘Ashamed of Ourselves’, but he is precise with his choice.
The Fear of Embarrassment covers our heart. Because this peculiar English covering is very big and heavy strong, we have constituted an authority, NANNY STRICTLY, to rule over us and keep it firmly in its place. One way of recognising NANNY STRICTLY’s presence is the large portrait of the Queen of England which fills the right of the tapestry. It is in the same place as she is found on our £ notes. In other words, she is the one who rules our credit and gives promisory (‘promise to pay’) value to our lives.
No 3. Melanie, Georgina and Sarah
Nearly a Full Moon: “Three women, big and proud, who want their size to be seen as a positive.” writes Grayson Perry. I wondered about swopping the word Age for Size: “I have portrayed as vaguely antique hieratic figures adorned with images…” Grayson Perry continued. “In history, female forms such as these were often seen as fertility goddesses to be prayed to for children and a plentiful harvest… Nowadays more likely to be seen as a growing health problem.”
No 4. Britain is Best
East Belfast: “I was fascinated how exotic it felt… (and preferred) a jolly style rather than dour and aggressive”. The tapestry was located in a room called ‘New World Britain, 1914-18′.
No 5. Modern Family
Different qualities of attention: the photograph was made from the other side through the looking glass.
No 6. The Asford Hijab
‘It’s a way they have in the Navy’: unable to see closer, I looked over a screen displaying some song sheets: one said.
No 7. Idealised Heterosexual Couple
Mummy and Daddy: divorced and living apart, the story was they came together to support their three girls getting to their dancing classes and winning competitions. It was uncanny and scary to see these three young STRICTLYs – Jenna, Amy and Charlotte – in the making.
No 8. Memory Jar
Meet ALTZY: round the front of the jar there was a portrait of husband and wife Christopher and Veronica Devas . Christopher has Alzheimers disease. Round the back of the jar there was “a demonic figure who is snipping up their family snaps”. He went by the name ALTZY, and I met him through my father’s his last years. Sometimes I can sense him stirring inside me now.
No 9. The Huhne Vase
Default Man: “I wanted to represent Chris Huhne, for he represents what I call Default Man: a white, middle class, middle aged, heterosexual man, an identity group that hides in plain sight.” Grayson Perry explained that this kind of man successfully develops and defends his ‘individualit’, but the vase has been smashed up and repaired with gold paste… (“might be an asset in relationships for such a person”).
No 10. The Line of Departure
War heros: “return to the challenges of civilian life” for three wounded veterans from the war in Afghanistan. the tapestry was located in the 1st floor room called World Power, Expansion and Empire.
No 13. Jesus Army Money Box
Yellow Chasse: Thinking of Jesus Army people as holy relics Grayson Perry “placed them on one of my favourite categories, a medieval style chasse.”
No 14. The Deaf
“A Culture not a Disability”: I wondered again about crossing out ‘The Deaf’ in the title, and putting ‘The Old’ instead, but TRIXY told me not to.