Grayson Perry’s alter ego, Claire, looks sadly into the camera, with a slight head tilt suggesting compassion. She is the kitsch Madonna with child, all pink satin and plastic flowers, religion that has rummaged through the dressing-up box.
Am I shocked? No, how could I be. I, too, have a kind of transvestite alter ego. After all, isn’t that exactly what a priest does at the Eucharist – puts on a colourful liturgical costume and (either literally or symbolically, depending on your theology) gives birth to the body of Christ?
Indeed, I know some priests whose liturgical get-up is so lacy and frilly and effeminate, they make Perry look butcher than a Glasgow docker.
We meet in Perry’s north-London studio, HQ of Britain’s best-loved iconoclast, where, ironically, he has been busy making icons for a new documentary series. Because, after tackling class and masculinity, Grayson is back on TV to make us think about the great rituals that punctuate our lives, and whether they need updating for a more secular age.
Over four episodes, Perry turns his celebrated imagination to the central ceremonies of birth, coming of age, marriage and death. This is no longer art confined to the gallery. In fact, I’m not even sure art is the right word for it. It’s about people, often in the raw, sometimes joyous, sometimes distraught.
I do wonder if Perry’s playful aesthetic, dancing on the boundaries of taste, is going to be the right way to approach the death of a child, for instance. Certainly, this is Perry’s most ambitious project to date.
Is it anti-religious? “I don’t reject religion,” he insists. “That’s just a personal issue for me. I’m not trying to proselytise. But there is a problem in the relationship between society and religion.”
For many people, he says, religion “is just not a part of their lives any more. Therefore they don’t know the vicar, therefore it all falls apart. The vicar is just in some council crematorium going through the motions. I wouldn’t want that job.”
His strategy is to fly off to some exotic locations – the Amazon, Japan, Bali – engage with the local people and some spectacular ceremony, and then return with the wisdom gained to help construct secular liturgies for buttoned-up Brits.
It’s all about the emotion for Perry – how to draw it out, how to give it voice. And because he’s so good with people, his ceremonies are a huge hit. He gives people time and attention and signals their worth – not least because they are given the attention of television itself. It’s a whole world away from a 20-minute funeral done by the jobbing vicar at the local crematorium on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Compare to The Book of Common Prayer – for centuries the official book of Christian liturgy in England. Compiled by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549, and subsequently translated into nearly 200 languages, it supplied a mass delivery system, an off-the-peg template for the hatching, matching and dispatching of several million people over several centuries. A Perry ceremony, on the other hand, is made to measure.
But are there any underlying values to his life-event liturgies? Is it all just performance art – a term Perry absolutely hates – or is there something else behind his artistic reimaginings of traditionally religious events?
The answer sits on the table between us. Alan Measles was Perry’s childhood companion and remains his muse. He is a small beady-eyed teddy bear with a red knitted cardigan, brown trousers and one ear missing. He sits on a Perry-designed throne bearing his name.
In his studio, little figurines of Alan Measles are scattered throughout – one in gold with an erect phallus. @Alan_Measles is also Perry’s Twitter handle.
He’s “an imaginary figure on whom I project my needs,” says Perry. Called Alan after his best friend and Measles after the illness that confined him to bed at the age of three, Perry says of him: “He was my god.”
He isn’t just mocking traditional religion, though there is a touch of that. He’s also pointing to a deeper source of artistic values: psychoanalysis.
“Alan Measles became my surrogate father,” says Perry, a “benign dictator” that he cuddled up to at night. Two years ago, Perry’s mother died. He hadn’t seen her for 15 years and he didn’t attend the funeral, having apparently rejected her previous attempt at reconciliation.
“Only half of her children went to the funeral, and that was out of morbid duty,” he said later. “She was… a difficult woman. And mentally ill, and it wasn’t our job to fix that.”
He tells me that his sister described the service as “one of the most inappropriate things I have ever been to”. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t a subject he’s happy discussing.
As he tells me more of his unhappy childhood, I think I begin to see the connection between art and liturgy in his imagination: if reality is not able to supply the things that we need in order to survive emotionally, then we need to make them for ourselves.
As Perry himself says, “I take great comfort in the meaningless. My job is to make meaning. To make meaning in a meaningless world. Ceremonies don’t just fall from the sky,” he insists. “We make them all up.”
He talks of the Shinto wedding ceremony he watched in Japan. “It looks like some ancient ceremony, but it’s really only 100 years old.”
And the reason many brides like the traditional Shinto costume is that it hides the bump, he chuckles. At times, I feel I’m in the company of a fellow priest sharing stories about the services we have taken.
Like the clergy, Perry has a keen sense that the great dramas in our lives are often flecked with absurdity. But the difference is that for the priest, meaning is found. It is out there, independent of us.
For Perry, meaning is made. He is its author. And that makes him stand in an altogether different relation to the life liturgies he creates.
So Alan Measles is not the god, I say to him – you are. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course,” he replies. Perry offers the artist – ie himself – as the great creator spirit, supplying meaning. As I follow this line of questioning, a warning bell sounds in Perry’s head. “Oh no. I can see the headline: Grayson thinks he’s God!”
We laugh, but that’s about the size of it. When Perry did his own version of a medieval mappa mundi in 2008, he replaced the head of Jesus, typically at the top of the map, with his own head.
When it comes to casting himself as God, Perry has form. There is a pattern to the sort of answers Perry gives about religion. He says he admires it and is not against it; he says seven out of his top ten artworks are religious. And art begins with religion.
But whenever there is the slightest danger that he might be getting a little too serious or even (heaven forbid) earnest, he makes a sideways move into humour, usually sex related. For example, he tells a story of visiting the cathedral in Toledo in Spain in 2007. It was a hot day but inside the cathedral it was cool and dark, apart from a statue of the Virgin Mary
illuminated with candles, with a little velvet cushion before it.
“Why not?” Perry thought. So he knelt down and gave prayer a go. Then he looks at me and, adopting a manic voice, says: “It was a bit of a sexy thrill. That abasement.”
This is classic Perry. He strikes me as an intensely serious person who never fully completes on his seriousness, pulling back at the last minute with humour.
“I like to keep my emotional powder dry,” he says. “I like teasing, but not full-on conflict.” Perhaps this is why we, the priest and the artist, end up laughing so much together. He is just too conflict-averse to get into a proper argument. So he tries to get an eight-inch teddy bear to do it for him.
Only at one point do I think I momentarily break through that deflecting shield – when I say that when it comes to designing liturgies for the central moments in people’s lives, he has some sort of responsibility to drop the cheeky evasiveness.
Surely at some point he has to follow though with the seriousness of the event? There follows a rare moment of quiet.
Perry attends the Summer Party at the V&A
At the end of our interview the doorbell rings and a beautiful medallion of a silver baby chained to a womb is delivered. Perry designed it as a present to the surrogate family whose birth ceremony he devised. As a mark of the ongoing relationship between biological parents and the surrogate, “I’m not presenting it to the couple, but to the three of them,” says Perry.
What were the liturgies that meant the most to him? He describes his wedding in the “register office round the corner” without any particular sense of occasion.
More fondly, he remembers the game that he and his family used to play on New Year’s Eve, all sitting in a circle and each recalling the most important things that had
happened to them throughout the year.
“The one thing I learnt in group therapy is that everyone is different,” Perry says. Hence, perhaps, his need to design our life events to recognise the individual. Too many liturgies are “one note” emotionally, he says. His ceremonies are characterised by an awareness of ambiguity and emotional mess. They are happy/sad, tragic/comic.
We speak about an article in The Spectator in which the Sky News presenter Colin Brazier discussed how he didn’t want his wife’s funeral to be a happy, Hawaiian shirt-wearing “celebration of a life”. He wanted people to wear black and mourn.
I tell Perry that I admired that article and agreed with it – that we have become too afraid of death and too afraid of the emotions that surround it, so we pretend to be happy at funerals. Perry half agrees – he wants both sides represented: the happy/sad funeral.
What would he want his funeral to look like? “I won’t be there so I’m not worried about it.”
Given all the attention he has given to the funerals of other people, I’m slightly surprised. He compares his funeral to his artistic legacy – and he doesn’t care what becomes of his art. “Put it in the skip the day after the funeral, I won’t be there to worry about it,” he says, with a nonchalance I don’t entirely believe.
What stays with me as I leave Perry’s studio is something he paraphrases from the historian of science Jacob Bronowski, who made the 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man: “When we see the great monuments to gods and religions, the person we should be celebrating is the man who made it.”
That, to me, is the most troubling feature of the Perry life ceremonies: they are just too much about Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry: Rites of Passage Thursday 10:00pm Channel 4