Monthly Archives: October 2014

Grayson Perry: Arts Broadcasting’s Postmodern Revival

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Our most beautiful and complex artwork that
we will ever make is our identity”

In the Turner Prize winner’s latest series Who Are You? Grayson Perry challenges our perception of identity, portraiture, and the traditional format of the arts documentary.

In what could be seen as a follow-up to his 2012 series In the Best Possible Taste, which explored the notions of class in Britain, Perry is this time concerned with the concept of identity and how it can be represented through portraiture.

Perry’s subjects in the first programme of the series are described as people who are at a “crossroads or a crisis in their identity”. But that is not to say that their struggles for self-understanding are particularly unique. Rather, Perry presents us with an exploration of postmodern identity through the eyes of the artist. Our sense of who we are is not static and stable, but fluid and dynamic, and more importantly, it is as much about how others see us as it is about how we see ourselves.

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Perry seeks to understand in greater depth some of the recognisable archetypal identities presented to us within today’s society, such as “the powerful, white, bullet-proof, male” figure of ex-politician Chris Huhne and the shallow, fake, celebrity of reality TV star Rylan Clark. Through the deconstruction of these identities, Perry demonstrates the extent to which they are less of an individual construction and more shaped by society and the roles we assign one another within it. As much as the portraits represent the individual identity of the sitter, they also reflect parts of our own identity back to us. The stories and experiences that are revealed through these individual journeys of power, fame, religion and gender are, at their core, universal in nature.

The struggle for creating a coherent sense of self within this context is perhaps most powerfully represented through the process of creating Rylan’s portrait. Watching a video of one of his past performances on a laptop at his Mum’s house in Essex, the former X Factor contestant confides in Perry, “I don’t think I could ever be happy, because I know it’s all fake”. In this respect, the choice of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust makes perfect sense as the track chosen as the background music for our introduction to Rylan. The song charts the self-destruction of Bowie’s on-stage persona, consumed by his own fame and ego, a fear which Rylan also seems to articulate to some degree.

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The challenge for Perry throughout the series is negotiating how to represent these complex identities within a single, static piece of art. Perry works within a range of artistic mediums in order to best represent his subjects, from the fragility of the smashed pot for Chris Huhne, to using a hijab as the canvas on which to depict Kayleigh’s conversion to Islam. This is a process that draws attention to how the medium in which artistic vision is presented carries particular significance in regards to the meanings embodied within the piece. Just as Perry unpicks the layers of identity within his subjects, his portraiture also features layers of meaning in the form of collages and numerous references to other artistic traditions.

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But Who Are You? doesn’t just make us reconsider how we think about identity and how it is represented within portraiture, it also deconstructs the notion of the traditional arts documentary format.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Mark Lawson suggests that Grayson Perry has ‘revolutionised art on television’, with his mix of talkshow, arts documentary and investigative journalism, to create a ‘mould-breaking combination’.

I would argue that this combination works so well because the elements of talkshow, arts documentary and investigation compliment each other in a way that draws on the strengths of each genre. The talkshow element gives the arts a social context that engages the viewer on a personal level. In turn, the artistic context provokes the interviewees to perhaps reveal more about themselves than they would in a traditional talkshow setting, which is usually centred on some form of commercial self-promotion. And finally, the investigative component provides the framework for a clear narrative flow throughout the programme for the viewer to follow.

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But perhaps what is most compelling about this formula is that it demonstrates how good art and good television can be made in tandem. The television series and the portraits themselves both exist as two separate entities that are still ideologically bound through their means of production. What makes this revolutionary is that it demonstrates how one medium can enhance the other in a way that emphasises their similarities, rather than their differences. Television and art do not have to remain on either side of the boundary between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, but can form a symbiotic relationship that draws on the strengths of each form of production.

Watching Paint Dry: Is ‘Slow TV’ Art?

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In 1963 Andy Warhol filmed his then-lover, the poet John Giorno sleeping for five hours and titled it Sleep. A year later the film was premiered at the Grammercy Arts Theater, and according to the New York Post only nine people attended the screening, with two leaving during the first hour.

However, it would seem that Warhol’s “anti-film” was perhaps a little ahead of its time. Today, millions of viewers in Norway are tuning in to watch real-time footage of burning fireplaces, sheep shearing and ship voyages on the country’s public service broadcasting service, NRK.

A notable example that has been gaining a lot of attention is Bergensbanen minutt for minutt, which shows a minute-by-minute train journey from Bergen to Oslo predominantly from the driver’s point of view. If you have a spare seven hours you can watch the complete film below:

The growing popularity of Norway’s aptly named ‘Slow TV’ has also gained interest here in Britain, with British Airways set to show Bergensbanen minutt for minutt as an in-flight film to calm stressed passengers. Although whether we’ll start to see real-time footage of the London to Edinburgh line in place of Strictly Come Dancing remains unseen.

But the use of Slow TV by British Airways also draws particular attention to the therapeutic qualities of the genre. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller states:

Slow TV seems slow in part because, unlike our standard experience of the world, it’s unshaped by interior consciousness. Instead of drowning out its viewers’ inner lives, it seems to want to be a backdrop that can give rise to their own reflections. A slow-TV program is like a great view you encounter on vacation: it’s always there, impervious, but it gains meaning and a story depending on what it conjures in your head.

So by presenting us with the mundane and normal within a timeframe that matches our everyday experience of the world, Slow TV creates something of a blank narrative canvas on which the viewer may project their thoughts onto.

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In the book Art as Therapy, pop philosopher Alain de Botton and art historian John Armstrong present a thesis based around the notion that the visual arts serve a therapeutic function for the observer. To underline their argument, Botton and Armstrong strongly advocate that the arts should be approached in a more personal and subjective way that can help us think through our ‘innermost problems’.

Although watching logs burning in a fireplace for five hours may not arouse the deepest of soul-searching or provide the answers to all of our moral dilemmas, it could be argued that it still serves a therapeutic purpose through inciting self-reflection and mindfulness within the viewer.

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Like the iconic pop art that Warhol is predominantly known for, Sleep is very much about the representation of the mundane. Both Warhol’s paintings and films challenge the traditional conventions of each medium both in subject and form.

The same can also be said of Slow TV. Television has long been thought of as a medium for broadcasting ideas and information through its programming, rather than as a catalyst for self-reflection. It presents us with the interesting and the engaging, rather than the mundane. By subverting these norms Slow TV makes us reconsider the very nature of what television should or should not be.

So is this genre of “anti-television” a new form of conceptual art? Some may argue so. However, I’m sure there will be many more who echo the thoughts of one Rotten Tomatoes user, who on reviewing Warhol’s Sleep simply states: “This is just as boring as you’d imagine it would be. I want 5 hours of my life back.”