Since winning the Turner prize in 2003 for his illustrated pottery, the transvestite Perry has become a pantomime figure of the British art scene. Is this just celebrity transgression, or something more?by Duncan Fallowell / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
Grayson Perry lives in a charming Georgian house in a leafy square in central London. “Would you like tea or something stronger?” he asks in a rich, deep Cockney voice. “And toast? I always have toast around now.”
I ask him if he dresses up only for performance. [He is dressed normally in white shirt and jeans.]
“No, it’s not performance ever. I dress up ’cause I want to. The ideal transvestite experience is walking down the street with a mirror held in front of you, but the minute I step out into the street dressed up, the street kicks in and I’m aware of the distractions and dangers of that. So today it’s practicality—it’s a hot day and I’ve been dashing all over the place.”
Years ago Divine [the famous American cross-dressing singer and actor] told me he didn’t like dressing up any more, it was just business.
“He was gay and he was a drag queen—and that’s a very different animal.”
Have you ever had a homosexual or bisexual life?
“I saw that it would be a good career move early on but it never really took off—as soon as that stuff actually hits I think ‘oh no thanks, not for me.’ Drag queens like to attract men, whereas most transvestites are hetero. It’s the emotional scenario of being overpowered and humiliated that’s the turn-on. Do you take milk and sugar?”
Just milk. So is S&M a factor in your art and life?
I’ve tried to understand bondage. But I can’t.
[He laughs.] “Well, all fetishes are about accessing an emotional state, fear or love or anger or whatever, we all have our own mix. Bondage is partly about boundaries, about being held. The two requirements for a good parent—or any leader for that matter—are love and boundaries, and bondage is about re-creating that loving restriction of a good parent.”
Isn’t it about guilt too? Bondage is for people who can’t take yes for an answer because they find sex shameful. If they are tied up and helpless and it is done to them, they are not responsible. They can enjoy it without having to volunteer to enjoy it.
Smearing peanut butter over his toast, Grayson replies, “Real humiliation and shame and violence would be appalling. But a nice controlled S&M scenario can be exciting. There’s degrees of it—some people like to be kidnapped and beaten up.”
What makes you feel guilty?
“Not spending enough time with my daughter.”
I was reading the press on you. All the reports are so miserable.
“I encourage that. I like a plangent tone.”
One said your work was the art of disappointment. Which was nonsense, art gobbledegook. It was the writer’s own disappointment, she couldn’t see in it the kind of bogus angst she was looking for. [Grayson’s art is a challenge and a celebration with an English playfulness. His pots combine glitter and sheen, and sometimes bright colours and glazes, with macabre or even pornographic images.]
Do you feel particularly English in your art?
“Totally. It’s conscious as well as unconscious…. One of the problems with success is that you are less able to play. You become so self-conscious.”
You are typically identified as a sort of Alice in Wonderland figure. [In the past few years Grayson has repeatedly posed for press photographs dressed as an idealised kind of Victorian girl, in knee-length blue dresses and a blonde wig with a bow.]
“Alice is the most famous incarnation of that look.”
Her world is also sinister and strange.
“It doesn’t harm to have those associations.”
You wouldn’t get this conjunction of innocence and sex in a modern kid because they are too knowing. There are modern kids in your work but most of the children doing anything outrageous are distanced in time.
“For adults, childhood does go back in time. Most fetishes are about re-creating the emotional dramas of childhood. I did a pot called Strangely Familiar, about S&M scenarios. What people do in those scenarios, though they may not realise it, is revisit and get sexually turned on by the structures of their traumatic childhoods. One thing I like about what I call the toilet-door symbol [the outline of the female seen outside public lavatories] is that it is universally understood. Go to any country in the world and draw that keyhole shape and they’ll say ‘little girl.'”
Middle-class little girls.
Isn’t it a middle-class outfit, with the white socks and black shoes?
“In England. But African and South American girls, even from poor families, have that silhouette when they go to school.”
You’ve said that pottery uses feminine shapes and is a humble, feminine form. But I see your art as male. Your pots are made in a male way, never hand-thrown on a wheel, but built up from long, penile coils. And they are aggressive in content. The vases are bombs, not only bomb-shaped, but in that the closer you come to them, the more you see in them and the more they explode with cryptic phrases and profusions of images. And you strike me as one of the most male people I’ve ever met. [That laugh again, a big generous cackle.] When I think of ceramics, I think of famille rose, Meissen, Wedgwood, Sèvres, that aristocratic stuff which sells for a fortune. Not exactly humble.
“I do like all that. But I also like the storage jar or the beer flagon. And the crafts are traditionally feminine.” [Grayson learned his basic techniques at evening classes.]
Is dressing up as a little girl a way to access paedophilia safely?
“Dressing up is partly about the right sort of attention. Little boys don’t get the kind of attention for just being which girls get. Nobody says to a boy, ‘You look lovely today, my precious.'”
Don’t they? My parents said things like that to me.
[He looks blank.] “Not now. It’s all about doing now. You played football well.”
How awful. It must be related to the current neurosis about paedophilia. I’m thinking about that general anxiety today among men, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, with regard to touching children who aren’t their own, which has had the particular effect of isolating boys from love.
“Oh yes—which is weird and very damaging. For a boy to say he likes classical music or likes the teacher or likes studying is virtually impossible now.”
So as the opportunities for real prowess shrink for males, they become more self-conscious about projecting a male image?
“Yeah, it’s a difficult time for being a man.”
Are you still in therapy?
“No, I finished two years ago. It’s as near a religion as I’ve ever had. I started in 1998 because I was getting depressed, especially over work relationships.”
Was it useful?
“Fantastically useful and also very stimulating. It’s given me a set of tools for dealing with life. It’s polished my interior lens. For an artist that’s a golden gift. Artists who think their neuroses are their talent—it’s a load of twaddle.”
Did you ever attempt suicide?
“No! I used to get depressed because I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. Psychotherapy made me more assertive—it’s knowing what you want. The basic questions I dealt with in therapy were—who am I? and, what do I want?”
You have talked about your violent childhood and family problems. Were you sexually abused?
“No, no… but my stepfather was very violent. Part of the transvestite process—as I see it—is that as a child, certain feelings are not appropriate for a situation. Because of the overwhelming power of my stepfather, I put all my sensitive feelings to one side and they came back as a female alter ego, which I used to call Claire. All my male side went on to my teddy bear for safekeeping, which didn’t leave a lot left for me—a thin cipher of a person. I did an urn called We’ve Found the Body of Your Child and one of my motivations was to show that violence, child abuse, child murder, are only the thick end of the wedge. [The urn is covered in gothic images of wide-eyed peasants in a gloomy village setting. A child has died but we are left to guess the full story.] My stepfather was more a wrestler than a puncher. He used to throw us about.”
Did he strike your mother?
“Yes, he was very intimidating. He was also inarticulate and frustrated by my mother, who was a world champion poisonous arguer. The combination was hideous. But I hold no grudges.”
Do you feel she ever loved you?
“Not really. She didn’t act like it. Love is action, I always say. Not the same as ‘in love,’ which is romantic, neurotic, transitory. Nietzsche said when considering a marriage partner, think only about whether you could converse with this person in old age.”
You presumably married the right person from that point of view. [His wife is a psychotherapist.]
How did you discover the facts of life?
“Ha ha! God… quite a long process actually. The boys at primary school would talk about wanking and shagging, and I started to piece it together. I first found out about transvestism—I’d been practising it for a couple of years at that point—in the Sunday People.”
How did you lose your virginity and what was your first sexual experience? They are not the same.
“Huge difference. Over ten years apart in my case. My virginity I lost conventionally with a girlfriend when I was 19. But I was taught to fuck by one of my lecturers at art school who was twice my age.”
Transgenerational sex is frowned on these days. Yet another example of the chasms which have been driven between age groups.
“Contact between older and younger is how knowledge is passed on. And it was a good experience for me. My earliest sexual experience happened when I was about eight. My stepfather used to make me go to football practice, which I hated—I did a pot called Football Stands For Everything I Hate—one day I bunked off, went tree-climbing, fell out, cut my leg, came home, and our babysitter washed me down, put me to bed, and in the night I sort of tied my pyjamas around my neck in a noose without quite realising what I was doing—I got a stiffie, I found it exciting.”
You must’ve been watching a western on television, somebody being lynched.
“Yes, that’s the sort of place you get your ideas from at that age. As a kid, I was turned on by Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, The Man in the Iron Mask, some episodes of The Avengers with Emma Peel in the all-leather catsuit. When she was trapped in a chastity belt in one episode I got tremendously excited.”
What do you love to touch?
“I’ve had my fair share of rubber fetishes. Suffocation has always been a turn-on.”
Do you wear female underwear?
Words are important to you?
“Hugely. I’ve got a book coming out, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl. A friend of mine wrote it based on tapes of me speaking.”
Do you know the work of Hans Bellmer?
“Yes, I like it. He’s the first explicit perv artist in the modern canon.”
I was looking at his La Poupée (“The Doll”) in Paris, a lifesize girl with white socks and black shoes, long cream thighs, pink flush—your iconography— but also his drawings, which are very acid. I don’t know if he took acid but Beardsley I think was his favourite artist. Did you take drugs?
“I’ve tried most of them. I enjoyed LSD the most.”
Did it influence your art?
“Yes, and it was a really bad influence for a while. It polluted my eye.”
Your ceramics are quite trippy. Stories going round and round, everything flowing into everything else.
“I’ve always had a horror vacui, I find it hard to leave a blank space in my work.”
[We spoke for another hour about many things.]