The gestation of his colourful ceramic pot dates back to the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, when TV producer and director Neil Crombie came up with the idea of inviting Grayson Perry to host an ‘art club’ from his own studio.
His studio would be rigged with remote controlled cameras to be COVID-safe, and heavily reliant on interviewing guests with Zoom too. During the shows, Perry would invite his Channel Four audience and other creatives to respond to the crisis as he devised his own new art.
‘Neil saw a moment that we should embrace – we should do something! – to help people get through this very dramatic global event,’ recalled Perry.
His producer Adam Simons went through the thousands of art entries, which were accompanied by a two-minute video. This revealed some extraordinary stories behind the response, such as Becky Tyler, an eye gaze artist.
Among Perry’s own pandemic works was a ceramic pot, Alan Measles – God in the time of Covid-19, which has now been acquired by the Science Museum Group and will be displayed in a section of the Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries that examines the health challenges faced by communities, cities and populations.
Clip from Series 1, Episode 3 of Grayson’s Art Club © Swan Films Ltd
Complementing an earlier blog post on how to visualise the pandemic virus with artist Angela Palmer, along with the scientist-artist David Goodsell, I talked to the Turner prize winning artist with Natasha McEnroe, Keeper of Medicine, who is leading the Science Museum Group’s COVID-19 Collecting Project, and Katy Barrett, former Curator of Art Collections.
Grayson Perry’s edited responses to our questions (without hoots of laughter) are shown in italics:
Was there anything that surprised you about making the series?
How emotional it was. I’ve never been one for an emotional interview. I’ve done enough therapy and I’m married to a therapist (Philippa Perry) to know how that goes.
Did the entries you got to the art club influence what you produced as well?
No. I am an artist and I do what I want. That’s my job. I use it as a chance to muck about.
Tell us more about the ceramic form, your version of a maiolica albarello (historic drug jar used in pharmacies) that we are acquiring?
I’ve always been aware of those jars. You see them sometimes in old fashion chemists and the albarello is a common form, originating from the Islamic Middle East and then went into Europe. For me as someone who basically just looks around museums, or in books, and then copies, it’s a gift.
And it’s a good shape for putting images on. There are some shapes that are too fiddly or elaborate. I tend to use simpler forms. So yeah, an albarello was an obvious one really. And I’ve gotta make a pot, which is my signature thing.
Originally the glazes used on these jars are blue and yellow because those were the only ones that didn’t just fall off when fired centuries ago. Were you inspired by this monochromatic approach?
I’m not a great technical person. I literally have one bucket of glaze. I don’t use a lot of different glazes, I just use it like varnish really. I’ve had times in my early part of my career when I had technical difficulties and things used to fall off. I’ve managed to get through that now.
What medical inspirations might you have seen in museums over the years?
Well certainly albarellos in, you know, in maiolica collections in the V&A and the Wallace Collection, places like that. I used to scoot through my collection of books, but now I tend to go on Pinterest ’cause it takes you down visual rabbit holes, I’m a voracious looker. In an hour on Pinterest you see an awful lot of stuff.
What took you to the particular fantasy narrative that you chose for your albarello?
Alan Measles, of course [his childhood teddy bear]. When I had a show in 2007 in Japan I thought I should have a religion – religion’s really useful to an artist ’cause it’s like a narrative that everyone knows. You don’t have to think about what you’re going to do your art about, you know you can concentrate more on the compositions and the forms and things like that.
I felt a bit jealous of medieval artists for having Christianity, or Islam or other faiths as a go to recipe for images. Alan was just the obvious candidate because cuddly toys and God occupy a very similar place in a child’s universe.
They are the imaginary character onto which we project all our wishes, hopes, dreams, fears. And so Alan is my kind of metaphor for a sort of God, for idealized masculinity. And COVID comes along, of course, and we all realize we’re mortal and God isn’t helping much.
In the first scenario, he’s quite distressed at his partner, Claire, who is just another aspect of me, another mythic character. He’s distraught that she gets ill. And then he’s been helping out. He’s probably been flying a helicopter or something like that. You know that’s the kind of job that Alan Measles likes to do. But as a kind of living God, he was letting people down. So they’ve got a bit cross. There’s a protest against him. That was a kind of response to how the pandemic has become politicised.
You look on Twitter now and there’s like the glums and the cheerful people. The glums are kind of progressive left wingers and the cheerful people -‘Oh get over it!’- are the kind of people on the right side of the political spectrum. You can almost tell people’s voting intentions based on whether they wear a mask in the shop or not.
I invented this movement for the pot, a kind of anti vaxxers/gilets jaunes-sort-of-people who are the followers of the black rainbow, the monochrome rainbow. It is like all the rules and none of the colour. They feature very tangentially in my stage show. I talk a lot about colour. I am fascinated by the politics of colour.
Alan Measles is your God. Why did you name him after a highly infectious disease?
What better God in a time of COVID then one named after a previous epidemic? I suffered from measles when I was about three. And that’s when I bonded with Alan – he was called Alan because of my best friend who lived next door, same age as me. So that was why he is called Alan Measles. Yeah, it’s strange that he’s called measles and he came along at the time of the pandemic.
Are Alan’s failures even more manifest because, being named after a very infectious virus, he should have known better?
He’s very, very depressed in the third section of the pot, where he goes into the wilderness. He feels not only as if he failed, but people hate him for it. So, he goes into hiding amongst the homeless and addicts under the motorway.
What do you think Alan’s views on vaccination are?
I’m sure he is very pro-vaccination.
Now that we seem to be getting more on top of the pandemic, is another pot due to show our faith in Alan being restored, thanks to Astra Zeneca, Pfizer and Moderna?
In your jar that is joining the our Collection, there are images of the built environment in the background. Are they real places or places that mean something to you?
I usually copy real places. I have books of architecture and buildings and I just pick buildings that vaguely match. It’s got like this little village and some little cottages and things like that. It’s about the British class vibe that it gives off. Claire looks like she’s being wheeled out of a Georgian rectory type of house, a classic symbol of middle-class living in in Britain. Then the kind of angry mob are in front of a 1960s council estate, shopping mall type of place.
Is Alan Measles posh or a bear of the people?
He comes from a World War Two fighter pilot kind of lineage. I imagine that he would be quite old fashioned in some of his attitudes.
Thank you for talking to us!
I’m always interested in having a conversation like this because it unpacks my unconscious process quite a lot, things that I don’t even think about. And, of course, sometimes my very politically incorrect sort of prejudices pop out. But I’m quite willing to embrace those and I will do better. We live in very censorious times.
Many thanks to Alan as well.
Yeah, he did good and who’d have known that I’ll be sitting here talking to the Science Museum about my teddy bear. What fun!
Hanging above Perry’s artwork in Medicine: the Wellcome Galleries is Bloom by Studio Roso, a kinetic aerial sculpture which represents the spread of disease with spinning propellers and colour. Significant historical objects displayed nearby include a lancet used by Edward Jenner for the first smallpox vaccinations, a rare iron lung, a ventilator used to save the lives of people who couldn’t breathe due to polio and protective clothing worn during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Natasha McEnroe commented: ‘Art provides an outlet for emotional responses to the challenges society faces, and we are honoured to be adding Perry’s work to the galleries to reflect the unique experience of living through a pandemic.’
The acquisition of Alan Measles – God in the time of Covid-19 by Grayson Perry has been made possible with the support of Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the Victoria Miro Gallery, Contemporary Art Society and Hiscox Foundation. Visitors can see the vase in display in the Medicine and Communities gallery in Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries from 30 March 2022.
HOW CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
There is more information in my earlier blog posts (including some in German by focusTerra, ETH Zürich, with additional information on Switzerland), from the UK Research and Innovation, UKRI, the EU, US Centers for Disease Control, WHO, on this COVID-19 portal and Our World in Data.