Helsinki

Grayson Perry, Battle of Britain, 2017, tapestry, 10 × 23’.

Grayson Perry, Battle of Britain, 2017, tapestry, 10 × 23’.

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry’s exhibition “Folk Wisdom” focused on themes as diverse as class, sex, religion, gender, and the current political climate in forty-nine works spanning nearly two decades. The British artist’s treatment of these themes by way of traditional craft media such as ceramics, tapestry, and cast iron conveyed universal concerns, always tied to the homey common sense referred to in the show’s title.

Spread across four rooms, the exhibition was dominated by eleven large tapestries adorning the walls of the principal space. Battle of Britain, 2017, measuring ten by twenty-three feet, evoked the landscape of the English county of Essex, where the artist grew up. The work was influenced by the homonymous 1941 painting by the British artist Paul Nash. While both works depict a similar expanse of land and sky, Perry replaces the compositional swirls of the airplanes’ trails and the river below in Nash’s idealized representation of aerial battle during World War II with winding roads and row houses as well as details such as a burned-out car and the graffiti slogan class war on a skate ramp.

Also displayed in the main room were two monumental pots, Matching Pair, 2017. The motifs featured on these ceramic pieces are taken from ideas that Perry gathered from the public both on Twitter and through research for his television series Divided Britain (2017). One pot represents the values of Brexit supporters and features Winston Churchill, Nigel Farage, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Cadbury chocolate company’s logo. The other features motifs chosen by the Remainers, including the National Health Service (NHS) logo, Barack Obama, and William Shakespeare, among others. But as the artist has commented, “The two pots have come out looking remarkably similar,” suggesting that there is after all common ground between pro- and anti-EU factions.

In a room off the main space, the visitor could see a custom-built motorbike, Kenilworth AM1, 2010. Aggressively feminine in pink and pastel blue, it houses a glass shrine on the back holding Perry’s childhood teddy bear, described in the accompanying text as a “surrogate father” to little Grayson. The work is completely about Perry, and yet, as is so often the case with this artist, it could be about anyone.

Another tapestry, Death of a Working Hero, 2016, highlighted Perry’s preoccupation with masculinity and social class. The piece shows a miner sparring with a bare-knuckle boxer. These figures represent the choices open to male working-class youth, here represented by a young boy positioned between the two figures. In the format of a trade-union banner, the tapestry mourns the loss of the ingrained rituals and strong political identity of British working-class culture, which was rooted in a kind of traditional wisdom that, as it erodes, is giving rise to new and unpredictable—sometimes reactionary—political tendencies.

As nations across the Western world slide toward the kind of populism we’ve seen in Brexit Britain—think, for example, of Italy’s Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant Lega party, and Donald Trump’s US—Perry’s linking of working-class identity to political currents draws attention to a situation from which Finland, too, is not immune. It is a testament to the universality of this artist’s work that his highly specific and personal cultural references maintain their urgency even when transposed to a foreign and seemingly remote national context.

Mike Watson