Grayson Perry's exhibition, The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!, at the Arnolfini in Bristol comes at an opportune moment. As students of research methodologies, we couldn't ask for a more accessible example of an artist's research and making process, from start to finish.
This is the second Perry exhibition that I've seen, the first being The Vanity of Small Differences (2016, Victoria Gallery). Then as now, Perry has deployed a repeatable methodology that involves a form of anthropological fieldwork that takes us full-circle from inception to reveal of the finished artwork back to the subjects of his research.
The Most Popular Exhibition Ever! felt refreshingly transparent. The work on exhibit is the result of his long-term project, All Man (2016, Swan Films), a documentary that investigated multiple aspects of English society and culture to understand masculinity. Perry admits that he had to overcome his own prejudices, and the impact of a traumatic childhood with a father insensitive to his needs. He coaxes transparency from the people he studies, uncovering deeper emotions beneath their macho behavior. His entire process is transparent - from conception to research through making - by giving us access to his sketchbooks and video footage of him in various socioeconomic groups, in the studio, and video of him discussing the work.
Perry's research methods sit somewhere between non-participant observation (NPO) and participant observation (PO) (Gray, 2004) starting with a personal struggle or question, then using interviews, observation, participating in group activities, open calls for content via social media; sensitive documentation via photos, video, documentary film, and sketchbooks - all of which make sense and seem quite accessible for conducting research into cultural and social norms.
One of the most powerful outcomes of Perry's process is that he shares the work he makes with the people who inspired it. It feels like a form of ritual, validation and healing for everyone involved, completing the vase or tapestry through the viewers' response to the work. The process seems complete for Perry as he reflects on how what he learned transformed him in relation to the original struggle that inspired his search for answers.
Thank you, Arnolfini and Grayson Perry, for curating this exhibition in a way that makes it highly transparent and extremely relevant for those of us digging our way through learning how to do proper academic research in service of our practice.
Gray, C. and Malins, J. (2004). Visualizing research: a guide to the research process in art and design. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Swan Films (2016) Grayson Perry: All Man. Available at:http://www.swanfilms.tv/productions/grayson-perry-all-man/ (Accessed: 30 October 2017).
The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!, (2017) Arnolfini, Bristol. 27 September - 24 December 2017.
Victoria Gallery (2016) Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences. Available at: https://www.victoriagal.org.uk/events/grayson-perry-vanity-small-differences (Accessed: 30 October 2017).