British artist Grayson Perry once described his visit to a Rococo church as analogous to a fish swimming into God’s coral reef. The experience operated on him in a bodily way: the space shook him. It comes as perhaps no large surprise then to summarise Perry’s oeuvre for the reader as a celebration of decoration and ornament through narrative and craft. Consciously operating somewhere stylistically between twee and kitsch, Perry is known for his ceramic pots and tapestries, but more recently he has begun to dabble in documentaries and architecture in his pursuit to aggravate British notions of good taste. Perry’s foray into architectural production was a collaboration with the now dissolved British practice FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste), themselves provocateur’s of the establishment in their loud rejection of conventional aesthetics (Fig 6). A subversion and rejection of the dominant taste values of the educated cultural elite is a theme that both practitioners pursue, but its presence is especially felt in this shared project, where the expression of a fictional human life is narrated across the surfaces of the house in a polyphony of tiles, with individually adhered nipples (Fig 3), tapestries detailing a tragically vulgar existence and a crayon colour palette in the interior. The ‘House for Essex’ (Fig 1) is then a bonkers lovechild of art and architecture: fusing the two cultural practices together in a contemporary gesamkunstwerk. It is the built ambition of Perry’s vision for a secular chapel that might both express something of our culture and induce an emotional experience in the visitor akin to Perry’s own memory as a fish amongst the coquille of God’s rococo reef.
The overwhelming cacophony of visual stimuli in the house is perhaps more usefully read as a series of narrative surfaces; a ‘built story’ that communicates Perry’s own personal polemic through fictional analogy. In a discussion at the ICA, Perry alluded to his thoughts on the relationship between people and their environment in stating, ‘humans are all about stories, buildings tell stories.’ Thus we can read the artist’s tapestries, pots and this jewel-box of a building as continuing with a historic tradition of depicting human action through narrative surfaces.
In Perry’s work there is a telling ambiguity between myth, fairy tale and allegory in the fictional characters and tales he weaves. The narrative of the house is the story of the fictional protagonist, Julie Cope, who is both social archetype, as the ‘Essex everywoman’, and reincarnation of a recurring theme close to Perry’s own experience: that of a person on a journey of progress through the social strata of modern British society. In this way the house is simultaneously fiction and autobiography; resonating, for me, as an enactment of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the importance of inserting ‘one’s self into the world’ to begin ‘a story of one’s own’ (Fig 2).
The House, as a tribute to Julie, therefore contains the story of her life. This narrative of a human life is told through the liberal use of carefully situated objects, designed by Perry and spatially accommodated by FAT, into a sort of memory palace (Fig 7). For FAT this use of decoration in design is a radical statement about the capacity for communication through architecture, where ornament and symbolism are used to tell a rich and complex story.
The exterior of the House is lined with tiles signifying aspects of Julie’s life, while figurative totems, including a functioning chimney, adorn the stepping roofscape. The interior space reads like the interiority of Perry’s mind, with illustrated panels, decorated pots and large objects of signification all squeezed into the visitor’s gaze. The careful curation of so much bling is the conscious expression of the ability of both artist and architect in engaging with the language of objects. The use of objects in the communication of an individual’s identity is something that both practitioners explore in practice, probably most notably in Perry’s transvestism embracing ‘taste safari’ for Channel 4, ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’.
Where Perry often talks about social groups as ‘tribes’, FAT use the American social critic Herbert Gans’ term ‘taste cultures’ to describe the values and standards of taste and aesthetics across society. An analysis of objects through the lens of taste and class seems to help Perry and FAT gain an understanding of people, through their identification with particular taste cultures.
Embroiled in privilege and class, the question of taste in cultural production is often an awkward topic, however both Perry and FAT are unashamedly brash in seeking to expose the ‘scandal of good taste’ in rejecting hierarchical systems of taste cultures. Where traditionally the high culture of an educated social elite is seen to have more symbolic value than popular and outsider cultures, Perry and FAT seek to engender a pluralism or democracy of taste tribes in their practice.
Therefore the House can be understood as the collaborative zenith of ideas about the attribution of certain taste and class values to cultural objects. It is itself a startling object in the landscape, a beacon of the urban art-school aesthetic transplanted into the countryside from the imagination and purse-strings of London’s artistic ‘chattering class’. Yet it is filled to bursting with objects that represent aspects of a fictional, yet archetypal, identity of a working class woman from Essex valorised to the level of a local goddess (Fig 4). The Russian doll motif used in the formal progression of spaces is thus mimicked in the project’s layering of conceptual signification (Fig 5).
In the House for Essex we read the use of decoration in both delighting and antagonising the cultural classes. Its walls read as pages of a fictional autobiography, but also, more importantly, as an allegory of good and bad taste in British class society. The project is enriched, rather than limited, through embracing the tensions inherent in a critical architecture that engages in socio-political issues. Thus this serious play of architecture, art and ornament might be both appropriate and fanciful in its imaginative exuberance.
1: ICA, ‘What is the use of ornament in contemporary art?’, 2011, London. Online recorded lecture on YouTube featuring Sam Jacobs, Grayson Perry and Charles Jencks. Accessed 2016.
2: Taking the original definition of vulgar as simply a synonym for common or popular. Its meaning has since evolved to include suggestions of excessive bad taste, closely associated with the devaluing of the common classes.
3: Bevan, Robert, ‘EXCLUSIVE: Grayson Perry and architects FAT design “A House for Essex”‘, Evening Standard, 15 May 2015. Accessed 29 October 2016. http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/design/grayson-perry-and-architects-fat-design-a-house-for-essex-10252424.html.
4: Perry, Grayson, ‘Taste is woven into our class system.’, The Telegraph, 15 June 2013. Accessed 15 October 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-features/10117264/Grayson-Perry-Taste-is-woven-into-our-class-system.html.
5: ICA, ‘What is the use of ornament in contemporary art?’, 2011, London. Online recorded lecture on YouTube featuring Sam Jacobs, Grayson Perry and Charles Jencks. Accessed 2016.
6: Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 2nd ed., London/Chicago, Ill, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 193.
7: Phrasing taken from previous readings of Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, London, Pimlico, 1992 and Hollis, Edward, The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors, London, Portobello Books, 2014.
8: ‘taste safari’ is used by Perry in desribing his immersive experience on the show where he lives with families of different classes, dressing in their ‘tribal’ uniforms and taking part in their activities.
9: Channel 4 is an independant broadcaster on UK television which sets itself as an alternative to BBC and ITV in producing shows of interest to minority groups.
10: Gans, Herbert J., Popular culture and high culture: An analysis and evaluation of taste, New York, Basic books, 1974.
11: Phrasing taken from Barbican, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined, October 2016 – February 2017. ‘Vulgarity exposes the scandal of good taste’ – Adam Phillips (co-curator).
12: Perry describes the audience at an event at the ICA as the ‘North London Chattering Classes’. ICA, ‘What is the use of ornament in contemporary art?’, 2011, London. Online recorded lecture on YouTube featuring Sam Jacobs, Grayson Perry and Charles Jencks. Accessed 2016.
13: This is a nod to the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, depicting the Allegory of Good and Bad Governance by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (13th Century).