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Grayson Perry: 'I'm allowed to go mad in the British Museum'

The artist displays objects from the museum alongside his own works in his exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

The first object you see on entering Grayson Perry's exhibition at the British Museum, which opens on Thursday, is a large pot by him decorated with images of visitors to the show and their imagined reasons for coming. "I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed," reads one speech bubble. "I just wanted to satisfy myself that I am more clever than this charlatan," reads another.

Perry, as he gave the Guardian a pre-opening tour of the exhibition, said: "I just thought it would be better to get all that stuff over with. I know what kind of shit goes down."

It is a typically knowing and cheeky intervention from the Turner prize winner, who persuaded the British Museum to let him create an exhibition by choosing objects from its stores alongside examples of his own work, which spans pottery, tapestry and, in the spectacular finale to the show, a vast cast-iron sculpture in the form of a ship, called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – which is also the title of the exhibition.

The show is not an art-historical primer, or a didactic exhibition about the way Perry makes work or thinks. "Some of the labels are quite bold," said Perry, "in their lack of information." Rather, it is a tour into Perry's imagination and intuition – even, perhaps, his subconscious. "Don't look too hard for meaning," he said. "We are all a bit mad, and this is me: it's just I'm allowed to go mad in the British Museum." The visitor, he said, will be "wandering around in my head".

If there is a unifying thread to the exhibition, it is perhaps about the power of objects – both that which is automatically conveyed by their being placed in a museum, but also their power as religious, ritual or fetishistic artefacts.

Creepily, here is a gold earring, "origin and date unknown" as the label primly states, with a chunk of withered ear attached – snatched from a living person? Snapped off a mummified corpse? Nearby, Perry has placed another severed body part, if anything more disturbing than the ear: his own ponytail, which he cut off in 1985, and placed in a little ceramic coffin he fashioned. One of his favourite exhibits, he said, is a Boli figure, or power figure, from Mali: an almost formless, squat blob formed from clay, mud and, according to Perry, blood. "It is the sheer potency of the object: there's something incredibly primal about it," he said. "I knew as soon as I saw it that it had to be in the exhibition." There are also shrines ("I love a good shrine") and pilgrim souvenirs – from modern badges to medieval lead-alloy brooches, one depicting a woman riding a broomstick to which a large penis has been attached.

The exhibition is an act of love to the museum – "most of my travelling has been done through this place," said Perry – but it also subtly questions its authority; it seems to ask why the artist's deeply intuitive way of organising objects is any less valid than the scholarly, supposedly objective systems of classification they are subject to as part of the museum collection.

How hubristic is it of Perry to place his own work alongside the hallowed artefacts of the BM? "Of course it's hubristic," he said. "I'm absolutely aware of the bitter irony of it being called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman when it's in fact a celebrity artist's vanity project." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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