Grayson Perry’s latest masterpiece is a giant tapestry take on modern life, with a headscarfed woman at its heart. So, is his cross-dressing for real, or is he just acting up a storm? Waldemar Januszczak peers into his psyche and is startled by what he finds
What to wear? It’s not a question that usually detains me for long on a Monday morning. I’m a slob, and that’s that. But today I’m meeting Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter who won the Turner prize while sporting a pink satin dress covered in yellow bunny rabbits. And that surely makes my choice of apparel an issue.
According to the fuzzy understanding I have of Perry’s interesting condition, clothes are critical to him, a key component of his psychosexual make-up. They comfort him. They define him. They turn him on. When he pranced on stage at the Tate in 2003 to collect his award from Peter Blake, and declared so knowingly that “it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner prize”, he was pushing his white satin lingerie in our faces. And the yellow bunny rabbits, and the matching red booties, and the pink ribbons in his hair. This was a chap making a statement, not just about himself but about the act of making statements. Such a man will have views on his interviewer’s garb. So – the black shirt with long sleeves or the black shirt with short sleeves? Dark blue jeans or the slightly paler ones? I decide a touch of restrained elegance is called for. It’s the longer sleeves and the darker indigo for me.
The first time I encountered Perry, he was in fact naked, and his impressive dong was flapping about adventurously as he careered through the East End of London in some sort of happening mounted by a group of out-there performance artistes called the Neo Naturists. They were led by two buxom artistic sisters, Christine and Jennifer Binnie, who wouldn’t keep their kit on. When these two farmer’s daughters put their backs into their work, any chaps in spectacles in the front row needed to hang on to their glasses. Because an accidental swipe from a swinging Binnie breast could knock a man out cold.
“People used to scream ‘Get ‘em on!’,” Perry giggles naughtily when I remind him later of his naked days. “In terms of being boring, you could get away with murder if you were doing it in the nude.” He had been a NeoNaturist stalwart for five years, and had actually squired one of the Binnie sisters. Clothes or no clothes, here was a psyche clearly cut from unusual cloth.
I had arranged to meet him at his gallery, where a new show was about to open, and where his ambitious masterwork, The Walthamstow Tapestry, was about to be unveiled. That it was a tapestry rather than a pot did not surprise me overmuch, as I have long suspected one of the chief reasons Perry became a potter was that he knew how much it would annoy the monks and purists of the art world. There is no way to put this kindly, so let me blurt it out: if you’re in the art world, you hate pots. Vicars’ wives make pots. People who go to evening classes make pots. But not artists. Not if they wish to remain cool and clubbable. Dressing up as Little Bo Peep, or the biggest nine-year-old at a children’s party, is not an obvious route to artistic success, either. In fact, it’s a toss-up as to which of Perry’s defining characteristics is less aesthetically seemly, his showy transvestism or his showy pottery. Put them together and you have an artistic career of such towering lack of acceptability, it really ought not to be happening. He hasn’t even come into the room, and already I know that, on one of his deepest levels, he is a man seeking to hurt himself.
Today is one of his boy’s days. So he isn’t actually in drag. Yet the coral-pink smock he has chosen, busy with elegant Aztec symbols, and the just-so pale-yellow slacks would not have looked too out of place on Jackie Kennedy circa 1962. Perry, I quickly conclude, is a collector of looks, rather than clothes. Everything he is wearing seems to have quotation marks around it. The stran gest thing about him, though, is what a thoroughly nice chap he is in the flesh. How entirely uncreepy he seems. How jovial and quick-witted. Much of the next hour or so is spent laughing heartily at his story, and I need to keep reminding myself of the most salient fact: this is a man who wears little girls’ dresses in public. Who turns up at respectable events in patent-leather booties and a bonnet. This is not an ordinary jovial fellow, Waldemar. This one is special.
The Walthamstow Tapestry has occupied Perry for two years now, and it’s a monstrously large thing. You know the Bayeux Tapestry? You know Picasso’s Guernica? You know the size of a double-decker bus? Well, put those three thoughts together and you have a rough impression of the woven whopper. Unravelling along the entire length of the gallery wall, it tells the story of an archetypal modern life in a blizzard of funny pictures that reward your closest inspection.
In the opening scene, a red-faced baby is emerging from between the legs of a birthing mother. My, how angry he looks. At the other end, a naked and balding Jesus type expires pitifully on a modernised tribal rug of the sort you might pick up at Ikea. In the middle, in the tapestry’s key moment, the angry little baby and the suffering old man take on their midlife form as a woman in a headscarf, a cross between a Madonna and a librarian, who clutches a handbag to her chest and stares forlornly down on infinity. Perry calls her “the Madonna of the handbag”, but we both know it’s him. I’d recognise that humiliated psychogeography anywhere.
Little Grayson was born in Chelmsford, Essex, in 1960. When he was seven, his father left, “because of his mother’s adultery”. So they moved somewhere smaller, called Bicknacre, where Perry, his sister, mother, new stepfather and two stepbrothers set up what is always presented in the Perry folklore as a dark and tormented household. Are we talking here about actual abuse, I ask him, about beatings and brutalities? Yes, the stepfather was “prone to violence”. But that’s not really it. “I’m distrustful of my own memory, but it’s almost like you remember the feelings as opposed to the events. Relatively small things can have a huge impact on a child if they’re uncorrected. If the dysfunction in your family is obvious, it’s almost better. The ones who are really damaged are those who still dream into their thirties that they had an ideal childhood. But I was never under any illusion of that.”
We’ve edged immediately into his sadness zone. Whatever happened in that house was bleak enough to send him into long years of therapy. Being a soppy sort of guy, I’d like to gather him in my arms, hug him and soothe him. But my mission is to find out why he wears women’s underwear, and what real impact his transvestism has had on his art. So my questioning needs to remain tough.
According to the Perry legend, the unhappy Grayson began sneaking off into his father’s shed, where the teddy bear he took with him began taking on an unusually paternal role. “My father leaving had a very strong impact on how I saw myself as a man. It was almost like my male role model had left. And I re-envisaged the male role model in my teddy bear. He became the leader of the resistance fighters against my stepfather, who became the invading Germans. That was the kind of narrative my unconscious wrote for me.” This heroic teddy bear appears here and there in the tapestry, where he wages a continuous war against a huge assortment of blue meanies, representing, I suppose, the bad adults in Perry’s life. They are joined by an extraordinary catalogue of famous brand names, stitched prominently into every inch of the weaving: from Durex to Horlicks, from the BBC to EasyJet, from HBOS to the Prudential. The brands pop up more or less where they might have popped up in Perry’s life: Pampers, Woolworths, Del Monte at the beginning; the Post Office, National Trust, Ann Summers at the end. A symbolic human life seems to be being measured out in symbolic multinationals.
I could happily have spent my entire session with Perry examining his giant tapestry. It’s a brilliant thing. A wag at The Art Newspaper has already dubbed it “the Guernica of the credit crunch”, which is perfect. Although Lehman Brothers avoid a namecheck, the rest of the banks are picked out and shamed, as is Visa (a prostitute in stockings), Louis Vuitton (an old man taking a pee) and McDonald’s (a blue yob brandishing a bottle of booze and a bra). Nobody will make a funnier or more spiky artwork about brands and recessions. If the Tate doesn’t buy the Walthamstow, it is mad.