‘God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ Said Nietzsche, so instead of looking to religion for comfort we laugh at videos of cats and endless cycles of memes. How then, do we create meaning from our lives in the absence of the grand narratives that religion once provided? In the works on display at Firstsite, Colchester, Grayson Perry explores these ideas through prints and tapestries that were originally created for the house he designed with architect Charles Holland, the development of which is also displayed in the exhibition.

Unlike most artists that tackle notions of religion and meaning in the world, Perry doesn’t become snared in the traps of ascension, nor does he allow us to indulge in the idea that art is a pill that can take us away from the grime of the real world; there is no room for that sinister and vague notion of ‘wellness’ here. Instead he reappropriates the ideas of religious iconography critically and uses its powerful symbolism and our common understanding of it to ameliorate and deify the present and the everyday. He brings us back to earth by showing us Julie Cope’s ‘Naked Lunch’, that phrase used by William Burroughs to describe the moment when we look at what’s really at the end of our forks – the reality we eat up in vast quantities. And by showing us one person’s naked lunch, Perry freezes a moment for us all to see the food on the ends of our forks. It is this we need to look to for salvation, not New Age religions or new diets that are just commodified forms of eating disorders.

All the works in the show relate to ‘A House for Essex’; a carnivalesque grotto smeared with a tumult of ornament and envisaged as a secular pilgrimage chapel to Julie Cope and her life story. In religious architecture, the idea of the vessel is important, and many examples of it are conceptualised in this way – becoming boats to hold and protect the congregation from the stormy sea of secular life outside the church, and to take them on their religious journey. Julie and her story become this vessel in ‘A House for Essex’, and traces of her run through the building like the writing in a stick of Southend-on-Sea rock. From the façade which is tiled with a depiction of her body, shown splayed out, legs akimbo, like a fertility goddess –still a symbol of life despite her death – to the spaces of the house itself, which in plan look like the volumes of a body laid out in state or a sarcophagus, and the interior where two red balconies appear as voluptuous mammary glands. The building is her body and her story is tattooed into the fabric of the building like architectural stigmata, and can be read as we perversely explore it in intimate detail. We depict ourselves and our personas immaterially through pictures online with great enthusiasm, ‘A House for Essex’ however, provides a harsh contrast; its architecture is a body that expresses a life through an intimately physical spatial experience, one which is most unlike the thin and shallow worlds of our virtual environments.

Surface, skin and fabric are important in how the building tells Julie’s story, which leads us then, to the tapestries, and in the exhibition these works give a sense of what the building is like in person, despite the absence of the house itself. They show us its mass and scale, despite how miniature and dolls-house-like it looks in photographs.

We are physical beings, but our media and how we experience the world and the lives of others is played out and edited immaterially on screens and various devices, which is perhaps the cause of various societal ills. The tapestries as well as the ornamentation which lines the house were once mainstream media too, but spatial and physical media that can be touched, that we can congregate around and talk about in ‘real time’. Tapestries and ornamentation were used from mediaeval times to tell stories, explain weird events and teach people about morality.

We would usually ingest Julie’s story by scrolling obsessively through her Facebook timeline till we reached that blue faceless baby, below which we read ‘Born on 31 January, 1953’ surrounded by the colours that could only be associated with hospital waiting rooms and illness. But if we did this, most aspects of Julie’s turbulent story would have been edited out, given our tendency to only exhibit the best parts of our lives on social media – like some encrypted and endemic form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mostly everyone is fine on social media, which probably makes us feel worse when something bad happens to us and we see the gloating and happy faces that multiply as we scroll. So by depicting Julie’s story honestly with all its unglamorous tragedy – that which could happen to anyone – and by using traditional craft to do so, Perry is showing us the physicality we are missing; forcing us to look at the digitalised and gangrenous feast of pixels on the end of our forks.

By using tapestries it may look as though Perry is regressing to ancient technology, but threads, stones and bricks were the original pixels that once surrounded people in their daily lives and surround us still in the form of glitch-ridden screens. So in using tapestries to tell Julie’s story Perry is bringing craft back to new technology, giving each warp and weft a unique aura and character, like the marks we might find left on a wooden table, which are absent in the pixelated wipe-clean world of digital surfaces and imagery.

Grayson Perry, Julie and Rob, 2013 © Grayson Perry. Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro, London

Two of the tapestries in particular seem to critically explore these differences between our physical and digital experience of the world. There is a contrasting perception of time and memory present in the two works Julie and Rob (2013), and In its Familiarity, Golden (2015): they both appear to be taken from the same period of our protagonist’s life despite their distinct aesthetics. Julie and Rob is the usual couple’s portrait we see in homes all around the country. We sit in our favourite armchair, eyes greasy with tears, surveying them all with friends, and say: ‘I have some good memories’. But they aren’t memories; they are counterfeit slices of time and don’t even start to capture the complexities of memory. Even memory has been hijacked by Facebook showing such pictures as involuntary ‘memories’; a grotesque form of Proust’s involuntary Madeleine memories. The algorithms, luckily, don’t know what you want to remember, but this can be painful when it brings back unwanted moments of your life: the techno-utopian equivalent of pissing into the wind. We are ghosts of ourselves in this type of image and it’s these images that we use to present ourselves with all over the Internet.

Conversely in In its Familiarity, Golden (2015), with its more poetic title, we see a more realistic portrayal of life and memory, with its many different moments of time, light and weather conditions cut-up into one authentic block of psychological duration. We don’t remember our lives in ordered linear thoughts like that represented in the clinical Julie and Rob but we throw everything up, collide thoughts and events to fill in the gaps and objects are composed and placed at random as they push another thought out of the way. Textures and colours change, bodies become fragmented and severed by different shapes as they are blurred away completely. Julie and Rob seems to be our social media memory, whereas In its Familiarity, Golden is our physical and subjective memory, and it’s this that will continue to be effaced if we continue to believe in social media like some New Age religion. We won’t become robots in an obvious way, but technology will infiltrate and augment our bodies and minds in more subtle and Machiavellian ways instead.

In its Familiarity, Golden doesn’t just give us a realistic portrayal of memory and emotion, if we look closely at its life cycle it also gives us a new life and continues Julie’s story. Quite prominently in the composition are concentric circles showing emotion radiating from the couple, but perhaps also depicting the circularity of time and the story we have experienced of Julie’s life. Why then, if we can see Julie’s life end in this tapestry, is the circle complete? We would surely expect a flatline or void in the arc of her life. But looking more closely at her darkly comic end, not at the hands of the grim reaper, but a pizza delivery scooter, there is something funny – a shimmer of life in her death. Dark comedy or ‘gallows humour’ was a type of humour originally used by the lower or working classes, those people who were pushed around and controlled; it was developed as a way of hanging on in the face of hopelessness. So by depicting Julie’s death in this way Perry has killed her off but by making us smile in the process, he has given her a chance to come alive once again in our minds. This means the circle of her life keeps going, and with this sly smile at Julie’s comical demise we can give birth to our own folk story and take solace in our own grand narratives and the things we have overcome.

Realism then, is not what is shown on the walls of the exhibition, although it would probably be classified as such – along with great works such as the films Cathy Come Home (1966) and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). But realism never really exists in the arts, it’s always just a copy of a copy. Real ‘realism’ is the moment when art prompts us to examine what’s at the end of our own forks, what our own lives actually are, and the discussions and thoughts we have about these beautiful scraps as a result.

The Life of Julie Cope is at Firstsite until 18 February 2018. For more information click here.

By Matthew Turner


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