Grayson Perry interview: Map of Days

The Turner Prize winner talks to Steve Hopkinson about his ArtFunded self-portrait Map of Days, why too much planning can kill an artwork, and contemporary art's identity crisis.

Map of Days isn't a typical self-portrait. How did you first settle on the idea of doing a map?

Well, I've done several other maps. I like maps. So when I was planning the show at the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the portraits of the people that are in the TV series, I wanted to do a self-portrait as well. So I sought a metaphor. I wanted to make it more of a musing on the nature of identity and the self. I thought the walled city was a good metaphor – the wall, I suppose, can roughly be interpreted as your skin. But like any city, it's dependent on the landscape it sits in as well.

That is the nature of the self – our identity only works in company. It’s co-created by other people as much as ourselves, so that was the idea behind it. And it's a nice vehicle for jotting down things as they come into my head, practically. That's how I work, on the whole – I don’t overly plan my pieces because I want them to have a random authenticity, I suppose.

Was Map of Days inspired by any other work?

If I was looking at any maps I suppose they would have been quite old: 15th or 16th-century maps of fortifications and things from Italy and places like that. I was in a town in Holland the other day and it was almost exactly that shape – these little tiny fortified towns in the Low Countries, they had that shape.

“I have the feeling of a globalised dismemberment of purpose. Whenever I hear the words 'global culture' I shudder.”

Stories about individuals' paths through life, their trials and tribulations, feature a lot in your work. What fascinates you about them?

The house project I’m working on now in Essex, that’s a story of an individual life as well. That’s what we’re about, isn’t it, as human beings? We’ve all got our narrative journey that we’re on, and we are natural storyteller people – that’s our most primal form of culture, storytelling. And so that’s what I go back to time and time again. It’s what people relate to, and what I am moved and interested by. I’m interested by ordinary lives, in many ways.

Your Channel 4 series, Who Are You?, explores turning points in people’s lives. Was 2011's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – in which you exhibited new works alongside objects made by unknown artists – a turning point for you?

Yeah, that was one of my biggest ambitions, to put on a show like that. I’d been working towards that for a long time, probably since I left art school. In some ways I had it slightly conceived in my mind, and suddenly I had an opportunity to crystallise that when I was given the chance to put on the show.

I presented [the British Museum] with the idea, and it was still fairly vague. It took three years to come into focus over the time I was working with them, what it would all be about. All I had at the beginning was the title, and the vague idea that I would make my work and pick things out of the collection and they would somehow relate to each other. It was always the exhibition that I wanted to make, and it's still the exhibition I’m most proud of.

Which other contemporary artists interest you the most?

I have a soft spot for Kiefer, but I wouldn’t even call him a contemporary artist any more. He's in art history, isn’t he? I've wandered around Frieze, but then Frieze for me is all about meeting people, more than looking about art. I like Kusama, but she's again art history. I don’t think there is a cutting edge today. I find a lot of contemporary art quite frustrating – what I call 'bits and bobs' art. They do a bit of video, a bit of vaguely apologetic looking sculpture in the corner and a few photographs. They always look kind of like Eastern European tourist displays.

You talk a lot about identity in your TV series. Has contemporary art lost its identity?

Contemporary art's in an odd place, where there’s no central thread any more. Not a spiritual, but a tonal impetus. During the YBA period even if you weren’t following that particular group as an artist there was an energy that everybody latched on to in London, that art was a certain sort of event, and everybody seemed to key into that.

Now that’s dissipated. I have the feeling of a globalised dismemberment of purpose somehow, and I wonder about that. Whenever I hear the words 'global culture' I shudder. I was talking to somebody in the media recently and they were saying that they were making something about the Turner Prize, and a lot of nominees don't want to be interviewed. They don’t want to engage with the public, which is what I’m interested in. Maybe it's become uncool to be popular now.

If you were to do the map again, would it be substantially different?

It would. It would be a lot more organised and easily interpretable for conversations like this, because I tend to have a very vague idea when I start a piece and then it comes into focus as I’m working on it. But that always lends it a certain charming, chaotic nature and that works for me. Sometimes if you can look at an artwork and you can see how it was conceptually constructed and it all fits together like a neat intellectual puzzle, it can die at that point. I never try to do the same idea twice, because then I wouldn’t go on that journey myself, of finding out what I was trying to say.

Map of Days was acquired by Victoria Art Gallery in Bath with Art Fund support, and is on display in the city until the end of the year.

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