He’s captured the art world with his flamboyant, fancy take on pottery and some-what unique dress sense, so it was no wonder we were all on our toes for Grayson Perry’s “The Vanity of Small Differences” at Manchester Art Gallery.
Walking into the ambitious exhibition space you are automatically drawn into the 6 huge, sumptuously coloured tapestries. These tapestries show the life of ‘Tim Rakewell’ as he soars up the societal ladder, from his lower-class youth to his gruesome death as a rich yet unfulfilled man on the side of a grubby road. Perry took inspiration from William Hogarth’s famous work “A Rake’s Progress”, following a man called ‘Tom Rakewell’ who similarly went from poor to rich and had a gory, lonesome death(1). Looking at the contemporary take on a traditional story gave me the shocking realisation that society always has, and always will judge people on this hierarchy of social strata and what is considered as “class”.
The gruesome story and brutal meaning is made more subtle and viewable by these beautiful, vibrant tapestries, with cartoon characters and scribbly writing, which create an element of humour. Perry captures the viewers’ attention with his imagery then draws them in to reveal a deeper meaning through symbolism and stereotypes. From tattooed men and an alcoholic mother, to his death in a Ferrari with his gold-digger second wife looking onwards, the immense detail in these images keep the viewer interested as everywhere you look there is a new clue to the message Perry is trying to portray; a message which can relate to everyone.
The final scene of Tim’s death was the one I was most intrigued and moved by. All five tapestries before this final one come across quite cheerful until the meaning is revealed to you, but the imagery on the sixth tapestry gives you a shock at first glance. Blood gushing, bone’s showing, on-lookers gazing, smashed up fancy cars and IPhones’; it’s over-whelming. You feel empathy for poor Tim but then can’t help but think he probably deserved his lonely death. Perry uses the nosey on-lookers as a powerful metaphor for modern day social media, and how serious events these days are turned into gossip, with no concern if someone’s death is posted on YouTube.
It was shocking to find out the tapestries were made by a computerised machine, as I must admit one of the reasons I was amazed is because I thought he’d done it by hand. My first thought was “Is it really a piece of art if a computer has made it?” but then realised it all linked in with his modern take on a traditional story. William Hogarth etched into metal and printed the image, similarly Perry drew the images, scanned them in and printed them using a brand new high-tech machine in Belgium, yet there is still that traditional link to tapestry work.
Ultimately Perry has touched an un-conscious everyday matter and brought it to light, making the exhibition fascinating and relatable for all ages, backgrounds and classes. I questioned for a long time after the exhibition, what is class, what is good taste; tweed jackets or lavish sport cars? Maybe class & taste is one which does not alienate oneself from its surrounding and family, as we care lesser for the outsiders than we do for our peers.