It was the swings swaddled in clingfilm-like tied-back curtains that got me. An image captured by nurse and photographer, Hannah Grace Deller. I wonder if everyone will have at least one response like mine when they visit this exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery?
This is my first trip into town since we had the summer mini-break from COVID-19 restrictions. How long did Manchester have to socialise before the Tier Three penalty? I can’t remember. In fact, there is much of early lockdown that I seem to have forgotten about. But during a guided tour of Grayson’s Art Club, a new exhibition featuring artwork by members of the public and both lesser and well-known artists, I began to feel the shape of those memories again.
That’s the point of art, isn’t it? To look upon our lives, to reflect and to empathise with others, and to acknowledge and memorialise a point in time. Time that has, this year, crawled, caught up and back-peddled as the COVID-19 lockdowns have tampered with our body clocks.
But, luckily, it’s all here as a memoranda, a concentrated pandemic pulp of experiences shared in 81 original artworks which have been coaxed out of a Channel 4 audience. These works of art have been hand-plucked and moulded by the loving arms of a master potter, artist Grayson Perry, alongside his psychotherapist sidekick, Philippa, into a warm-hearted socially distanced embrace. We are all in this together.
For anyone who hasn’t watched Grayson’s Art Club, viewers were invited to submit their homemade lockdown artworks, responding to a different theme each week. Perry then selected the artworks he liked and chatted to the artists via Zoom. The show also invited famous people who enjoy making art in their spare time and included pro-artist works by Chantal Joffe, Maggi Hamblin, Jeremy Deller, David Shrigley, Raqib Shaw, Antony Gormley, Martin Parr and The Singh Twins.
Other than the evidential photograph by artist Seamus Killick, who dressed up as Death and played chess with his dad on a Saturday night, and the one in which Freya Moffat’s mysterious elf is seen through a window reading the paper, there is no performance art, films or digital art. There is the ready-made by Vinny Motag and Kimvi Nguyen, a chilling reminder of a national quarantine-esque obsession with food. Remarkably there’s no sound art. What about all that bird song we heard in 2020?
However, despite lacking in multimedia, the exhibition is a jolt to the visual memory and it wouldn’t work by being clever and too hard to read. Instead, it is full of love and compassion, powerlessness, humour and quiet outrage. It is Perry’s show and it is all art because Perry says it is, his eye nowhere more gimlety than on the theme of ‘Britain’.
It is here that Liverpool-based artists The Singh Twins, via the medium of a giant light box and in the style of the Knights of the Realm, remind us of that awful dichotomy of the Government vs frontline workers. The same goes for Jeremy Deller whose poster bluntly reminds us of those front-line workers who are so casually labelled. The celebrity contribution is by Liza Tarbuck with her vision of Britain flimsily attached to the inside edges of a box, and Grayson’s glazed flagon, ‘we shall catch it on the beaches’.
‘Home’ offers more by way of the site-specific. Sue Dibbon’s funny collage is about being cooped up with everyone in the living room, cats causing mayhem in every corner. Meanwhile, Anita Kapila’s cardboard box house, Barbie’s lockdown, involves being resplendent in pink tulle and sipping on Pepsi. And if you always wondered what kind of self-build Grand Design‘s Kevin McCloud would tackle, well…
Britain’s dedication to animals is also celebrated in its own enclosure and another of Hannah Grace Deller’s works stands out with what looks like a scene from a village fete from Midsomer Murders, featuring a little Toto-esque dog in a bright red outfit which matches its owner’s shoes. It reminds me that there have been some winners in the pandemic, not least the canine outfitters who I know for a fact have never seen business like it. Britain’s pet population exploded during the pandemic and there are lots of doggy portraits to testify. There are also cats, birds, and even chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty’s cat, made by Grayson, is so valuable that it’s been cast in silver.
It’s at this point that I notice Philippa Perry (Grayson’s wife) is putting in some classy pieces, too. Her ceramic cats are not as flash a feline as Grayson’s silver plague statue but, wow, they’ve got some character. I’m also enjoying some of the labels that inform us about the artworks. Harry Hill simply tells us how he found his dog in a log, and there’s a fantastical list of medium ingredients in one of the portrait entries. I won’t spoil the plot.
Chris Whitty pops up quite a bit throughout the exhibition. Perhaps he could officially open the exhibition when the gallery is finally permitted to re-open? I wonder what he’d think of Penny Lally’s bronze sculpture of his head? Or comedian Joe Lycett’s painting in which Whitty’s head floats atop a blue background in what looks like the cover of an Irvine Welsh novel? There’s also the self-portrait of Lucilda Goulden-White, made for her GCSE art exam, in which she wears her school shirt scrawled with last day of school signatures and the ubiquitous blue disposable face mask reminding us of all the poor Year 11s who missed out on their exams.
All this reflection quite took it out of me and I had to have a lie down when I got home. The exhibition reminded me of all that we’ve been through and all of the people who’ve died and the terrible loss they leave behind. Everyone should go and see it, but maybe not all at once. There is plenty of time because it’s open until April 18, 2021. For anyone who would like a daily reminder, you can buy one of Perry’s tea towels in the gift shop, adorned with the full gory details of a national crisis and the extremely British way in which we’ve defined it.
Grayson has captured the spirit of human coping mechanisms and, through his own magnificent sculpture Protective Spirit Alan, he has drawn strength from his own art-making. In the belly of that fierce little beast, there’s a void in which to hold our hope, our antidote.
While the gallery is currently unable to open, it will be staging #MAGartclub, encouraging people from Manchester and beyond to make art with a Mancunian twist. Works will be displayed on a live screen as part of the exhibition and on the Manchester Art Gallery website.
By Nancy Collantine
Main image: Hannah Deller, Swings in Lockdown. © The Artist
Join exhibition curators Natasha Howes and Fiona Corridan for a Zoom tour of Grayson’s Art Club here. Although Manchester Art Gallery is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, an online tour of Grayson’s Art Club can be found here.