Sex, art, fetish & identity: The Drum meets Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry

The Turner Prize-winning artist is coming to the launch of UpUp, a first-of-its-kind, contemporary art space from ad agency McCann London. Would he be up for an interview? The response: Hmm, not sure. But then there he is, dressed up and all resplendent as ‘Claire’, his alter ego. I tell him he looks lovely. Don’t quite get a response. “My father is a painter in India, and he’s obviously vowed to a life of penury, because he cries every single time his piece of art is bought. What is your relationship to your work?” And off we go.

“I’m about selling products and I’m not embarrassed about it. I make a living out of it.” He does however feel the cringe when he sometimes visits homes of people displaying his art. Perry of course made his name as one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists, with his beautiful hand-made pots are embellished with sometimes disturbing and sometimes irreverent imagery. He scoffs when I call his art ‘modern art.’

“The contemporary art world likes to think it doesn't have an orthodoxy but it does. It’s a very metropolitan, liberal over-intellectualised world. And if you present a more populist, suburban, Middle England argument against it then it is deemed very déclassé. The contemporary art world struggles with it because their value system is built on the overeducated white man.” No longer seen as ‘only’ an artist or a transvestite, Perry has found acclaim as a commentator on identity and masculinity, following his hit TV shows on the issues and his most recent book, The Descent of Man, which looks at the rigid masculine roles of our times.

He has to go and get dressed again, before he can come back and talk to me.

For the past 14 years, Central Saint Martins has collaborated with Grayson Perry on an end of year project “Make something gorgeous for Grayson Perry”. This translates to every second year a BA fashion print student at the college designing an outfit for the artist. This year, McCann London has partnered with Central Saint Martins to celebrate the students’ creative work and Grayson’s love of fashion, by hosting the “Frockaholic: Grads, Grayson and Gorgeous Dresses” exhibition featuring the 16 garments and story books. Grayson has to wear the winning outfit.

Sexuality & Identity

He comes back in a whacking great ‘architectural’ dress and matching made-to-measure gargantuan green shoes. All a bit Alice in Wonderland meets Zhandra Rhodes. As promised, he continues where he left off. Well, sort off.

“Do you ever have sexual fantasies about equality?” he asks. Interesting question. “No, it’s a mischievous question.” A question he would ask when he did his shows exploring masculinity and its meaning in our times.

Our sexuality is formed in the past, he tells me. “My sexuality was formed in the 60s when the male and female roles as we know it today were much more old school,” he says. But that question, what does it unearth? Part of all our identities, according to Perry, is our sexuality. And sexuality is often politically incorrect, “because we’re conditioned in a different era, while sexual politics and gender roles keep on changing so fast.”

What that also means is that being a transvestite is not the most interesting thing about him. Isn't it true that when he won the Turner Prize in 2003, the focus was not just his work but who he was? “It is true that one of the things I often encounter with a lot of transvestites is, that ‘it’ is the most interesting thing about them. Their sexuality or ‘being that thing’ is their hobby and the most significant thing about them. Not me.

“I have a multi-faceted career. I do enjoy performing, but the public are also interested in where the work comes from. I have very high standards when it comes to my work, so that has gravitas. If you are an artist, it tends to bleed into everything — from being a transvestite to being a parent to being a motorcyclist.” A few years ago, Perry embarked on a motorbike journey touring halfway across Europe on a pink motorbike carrying his teddy bear, Alan Measles, in a glass shrine on the back.

“I am an artistic transvestite, an artistic parent, but that doesn't stop me from being the transvestite that I was from when I was a teenager fetishising about certain sorts of female roles. I still like to dress up as a housewife sometimes peddling into town, walking around the shops.”

Grayson Perry, a national treasure

What fun, right? “It’s quite boring,” he counters. Perhaps because he is instantly recognisable, as someone who is being nudged into being the British national treasure. “Yes perhaps I am becoming a bit of a national treasure, but I cannot complain about people coming up to me all the time."

Perry says statistics tell him that 70% of his audience is made up of women and in the age group of 40-and-60 year olds. “They do sometimes rush up to me and try and be over-familiar.”

Easy to understand why. He sparkles with easy charm and wit, while retaining that inquisitive interest through heavily mascaraed eyes and layers and layers of make-up.

Advertising is not a dirty word

I hesitatingly ask the hackneyed question whether there are lessons that advertising can learn from his art. “A lot of people in the art world think that things like advertising and PR are bit dirty, bit grubby. Art and advertising both are about selling products. How can that be dirty?” If there is one thing he cannot put up with — intellectual snobbery.

“Somebody once called me a pseudo intellectual. And I thought, ‘oooh get you’. I then said, how do you tell the difference between an intellectual and a pseudo intellectual?

“The pseudo intellectual is the one with a really good book deal, the TV series and the exhibition.”

This is probably a huge disservice to both the man and the artist, that is Grayson Perry. But then for someone who, when he is really bored, gets dressed up like a housewife and gets on the bus, and is comfortable talking about his childhood, transvestism, and politics, this presents little bother.

And off he goes to his natural habitat. Mingling with a very over-familiar crowd.

Frockaholic: Grads, Grayson and Gorgeous Dresses exhibition at McCann London is open to the public from June 29 – July 21, Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm.