Grayson Perry: ‘The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts’
The Turner prize-winning artist took to the stage to answer readers’ searching – and often surprising – questions about his life and work at the Guardian’s Open Weekend
Highlights from Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry’s conversation with Decca Aitkenhead at the Guardian’s Open Weekend Link to this videoIt didn’t even occur to me that the biggest surprise of interviewingGrayson Perry live might come about before the event even took place. In the weeks leading up to the Guardian’s Open Weekend, we invited readers to submit their own questions for the artist. The responses were, by definition, unrepresentative and unscientific. But what a revelation they were.
My usual preparation for an interview had seemed so self evident until as to merit little attention. Whoever the interviewee, when drawing up questions I almost always gravitate towards their fault-lines and conflicts – the paradoxes and puzzles in their life and work. But our readers, it soon transpired, had other ideas.
Starting from a broad position of admiration, most of their questions could be characterised as devices to illuminate Perry’s personality, or invitations to expand on his relationship with his work. It came as quite a shock to realise that only one of all their questions would have featured on my list. Conversely, lots of them posed a fantastical scenario, based on a hypothesis – for example: “If you could travel back in time …” – which would never have even crossed my mind. The conclusion was rather sobering. If these questions were representative of what readers actually found interesting, it might be time for a radical rethink.
To be fair, though, no research method would have generated my single favourite question, submitted by the artist’s wife, who tweeted: “What’s for dinner?” Perry is one of the few people I’ve met who actually go, “Ha ha ha,” when they laugh – as he does, with earthy abandon, when I read out her question, before pointing out: “Well she’d know the answer to that.” Resplendent in a baby-doll dress of appliqué satin, and pantomime dame make up, he adds, deadpan, “I’m an old-fashioned man. As you can see.”
Perry must be about as close to the perfect interviewee as one could hope for. He dresses for the occasion, and deploys the risque, occasionally catty candour of the underdog outsider. He likes to preface a reply with a quote, and the breadth of his erudition is almost as impressive as his gift for counter intuitive aphorisms: “Innovation,” he declares, for example, “is overrated.” If Perry were a politician, these could easily be dismissed as sound-bites. But he commands the sort of giddy affection we tend only to bestow on our most improbable heroes.
The artist became a household name more or less overnight, when he surprised the art world by winning the 2003 Turner prize. Perry had already been working as an artist for the best part of 20 years by then, but wasn’t particularly well known within art circles, let alone to the public at large. Born and brought up in Essex, he’d endured a fairly miserable childhood and escaped to London, via art school, as soon as he could. Never fashionable, his success as an artist had been respectable but unremarkable – until the Turner prize made him a star.
Perhaps the clearest single theme to emerge from readers’ questions was their impression that the contemporary art world – embodied byDamien Hirst, Tracey Emin and so on – is a bit cynical, whereas Perry represents wholesome integrity. Interestingly, although Perry comes across as something of a mischief-maker, his answers are deceptively skilful, managing to both confirm the audience’s distinction between himself and the Young British Artists (YBAs) – and yet never endorsing any explicit criticism of his glitzier contemporaries’ work.
“Contemporary art has become this baggy old bag; you can dump any old thing in and people say it’s art,” he will concede. “I don’t want to see something you could think up in the bath and just phone it in. If you go to the Tate, every scrap of paper, every piece of poo – literally – is only made significant because it has a famous name attached. As an artist I’m very aware of what I call Picasso-napkin syndrome – I’ve got this 20th century version of the midas touch, where if I do a little doodle it’s worth money! And that’s quite a weird and horrifying curse, if you’re in the creative business, because you become incredibly self conscious.”
Perry has the audience in giggles when he observes: “Now that conceptual art has appeared on the Archers, you know that the game is up,” and reflects, “The most interesting thing about Damien Hirst is probably his accounts. Not to say that his work isn’t interesting as well,” he adds quickly. “But the most interesting thing is probably the accounts.” He calls biennales “banalies”, and says the modern gallery-goer’s attitude to contemporary art “is theme park plus sodoku. They want to go, ‘My god it’s so sexy, shocking, big, shiny, amazing!’ But,” and he starts to mime chin-stroking introspection, “‘what’s it about, what’s it about?’ My attitude to art is: is it good art? Is it giving me visual pleasure?” He thinks art whose sole purpose is to shock is “a bit boring. It’s a bit lame,” and though he sees a place for shock in art – “I suppose there’s an element that, you know, you need salt on your potatoes; I think it’s part of the kind of excited tingle of looking at an art work,” he thinks it’s become “a kind of worn-out thing”.
All of which goes down wonderfully with his audience. But he is very careful to steer clear of anything that could be construed as an art-world cat-fight. “I think the prank, if you like, of just signing a piece of paper and saying that’s art – that’s great, and it kind of had to be done, you know, make that boundary of what art can be,” he offers diplomatically. A reader’s question– “Compared with Grayson Perry, most of the YBAs of the 90s were, and are, humourless self-important pretentious bores. Discuss,” – makes him laugh raucously, but he replies, “Well I know quite a lot of them and they’re very funny, so that’s a very sweeping, terrible bitter generalisation – probably,” Perry grins, “from a failed artist.” Another question – “Given that much of the YBAs success could be attributed to their having gone to college with Damien Hirst, what would you identify as your own lucky break?” is jokily dismissed as clearly from “another bitter artist”.
And yet his answer is intriguing. A member of staff at an Amsterdam gallery, Perry recalls, came across one of his pots while rummaging through the basement for a ceramic show. She called him, got to know him, and asked if he’d like to exhibit a show in their gallery. That show won Grayson the Turner Prize in 2003: “So I guess that was my lucky break.”
Over the years since then, Perry’s work has increasingly featured his childhood teddy bear, called Alan Measles; he recently toured Bavaria on a motorbike, with Alan balanced on the back in his own custom built glass shrine, and he plays with the idea of Alan as a god. The bear is almost as famous as Perry by now, and a reader wants to know who Perry prefers – himself, or his bear?
“Oh well it depends. If I’m going to play the game then of course Alan is my deity and I owe everything to him. Therefore I would say that he is the senior partner. But of course I’m afraid to say that I projected everything onto him, so I’m sorry Alan but he owes everything to me. I have invented him. I hate to tell this to people but most gods were invented by someone. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m in the present, whereas the famous gods were invented by someone a long time ago.” An audience member asks if he is serious about regarding Alan as a god, or merely being satirical, and Perry admits that at first the idea was a joke, but over time has evolved into “a serious look at how religions form.” The best religions, he adds, “develop organically. On Twitter, probably.”
Alan Measles may or may not be a God, but he is unquestionably a celebrity – as is Perry – and many questions explore the theme of the artist as a personality. Perry handles them all with the unflappable poise of a media veteran. “Well one of the first things a journalist asked me after I won the Turner prize was, are you a loveable character or are you a serious artist? And I kind of replied, is it an either or? We live in a media saturated world. I’m sure artists of the past would have dealt with it in just the same way. If you’re in the business of communication and images, then if you ignore the media-sphere you’re just cutting off your own foot. It’s just daft.”
He is equally pragmatic about the relationship between contemporary art and finance. His 2009 work, Walthamstow Tapestry, satirised our slavish devotion to brands – and yet his recent exhibition at the British Museum was sponsored by the luxury brand Louis Vutton, as well as a City firm, Alix Partners. The only question I would have asked myself came from a reader who felt troubled by this partnership, and suggested that artists should be chronicling the wealthy’s abuses, not rubbing up to them, but wondered if they could no longer afford to bite the hand that feeds.
“Well,” Perry responds equably, “Nam June Paik said an artist should always bite the hand that feeds him – but not too hard. It’s one of my favourite quotes, that one. My show wouldn’t have happened without a sponsor, full stop. It’s just – you have to chew on it, it’s a real thing. It’s not a kind of new thing.” He is similarly pragmatic about becoming a brand. “Well it’s interesting because we use the word brand in a very derogatory way a lot of the time. I do it as much as anyone. But i think a brand is also sort of like momentum; it gets you through the bad patches if you’ve got a good brand.” He adds, though, “As an artist I’m extremely aware, increasingly, that everything that comes out of the studio I have to feel it’s of the correct quality. I can’t just sit on my brand at all. I think the worst behaviour of brands is when they’re all brand and no quality.”
Perry spent six years in therapy, from the late 90s to early 2000s, and is married to a psychotherapist, so many questions come up about the relationship between art and therapy. “Therapy’s been a huge influence,” he says, “and, yes, being married to a therapist has been amazingly influential because we talk all the time about therapy issues and I think it’s a very clear eyed way of looking at the world. I look at my art during the time I was in therapy and it was a kind of flowering; I got into top gear at that point.” In fact he came to the end of therapy the year after winning the Turner prize, so I ask if he thinks this was coincidental or connected. “Yeah, if you do therapy you’ll win the Turner prize,” he jokes.
Therapy had a major impact on Perry’s transvestism, which began in childhood and quickly became a compulsion, but sounds like a pure pleasure for Perry today. He used to talk about dressing up as an alter ego called Claire, but therapy taught him to reconcile his two gender identities, and the construct of a female self called Claire now feels to him like a bit of anachronism. Perry goes along with the Claire shtick as far as he can, but it’s evident that his patience is wearing thin.
I put a question from a reader who says that, when dressed as Claire, Perry is “the spitting image of my mother in law”. Perry’s timing and deadpan delivery are faultless: “Well, he’s got a very interesting mother-in-law.” Asked where he shops, he says he doesn’t; his clothes are all custom-made, often by the fashion students he teaches every year. “I say to them, make me something that I would be embarrassed to wear. I challenge you to do it! And they try their hardest, bless them. I get some superb outfits out of it, I really do.” Someone asks Perry to name the most humiliating thing that’s ever happened to him. “And did you enjoy it?” He laughs. “Well it was nothing to do with dressing up, probably. It was probably some hideous faux pas that I’ve made. No, when I talk about dressing for humiliation, it’s probably a fantasy of humiliation that I kind of have, rather than actual. Like a lot of sexual fetishes, you know, the fantasy is much nicer than the reality.”
Claire is, famously, banned from Perry’s studio, and a reader asks, Why does Claire have to be so neat and clean. Doesn’t she need a busy space too? “She’s not a real person,” he points out with a tart laugh. “This is it. It’s me in a dress. I’m a busy man these days so I dress up when other people dress up, or I’m doing a show. If other people are putting on a bit of slap then I will.”
I’d decided not to ask Perry any of the hypothetical questions readers had submitted – just because they were rather elaborate and would, I feared, take up too much time to get through, one alone running to well over 100 words. But then someone in the audience asked a concise one: if Perry could live another 200 years as an artist, would he still be a ceramicist or would he use digital media? “Oh I do use digital media,” he countered. “Now I only make pots probably half the time, if that. My next show, I’ve done it all on Photoshop mainly. I’m not a luddite when it comes to digital media at all.”
Well well. At the very beginning Perry had expressly asked not to be questioned about future projects – and yet this reader’s hypothetical scenario got him talking about it, and produced the one news story of the session. Truthfully, I would never have asked that question. It is a sobering and rather confronting thought.
The overwhelming legacy of this experiment is, to my surprise, guilt. I feel terrible about all the readers whose questions I never got to ask. I consider emailing them with apologies and explanations – until it occurs to me that they, more than anyone, have probably gained the single greatest insight into what it’s really like to interview people.
It’s not about deciding what to ask, or how to trick the interviewee into answering. Most of the time, it’s really just about what to leave out.