Turner Prize winning mountain biker
Ten years ago, we interviewed Grayson Perry, fresh from his Turner Prize win. What few people know, is that Grayson is an enthusiastic mountain biker, and regularly competed in XC races during the ’90’s
The art world seems to be a very elitist, closed shop, so as a ceramicist, did you find it difficult to be taken seriously?
People say to me, “It’s a mafia”, and I say, “Yeah, it’s a mafia that only allows in Essex transvestite potters!” So if I can get in, anyone can get in, but it is a meritocracy. I chose to do ceramics at art school because it was a naff thing to do.
So I made a rod for my own back, but that was part of the game that I was playing. I was a member of the awkward squad and so doing pottery was a naff thing to do in the art world. I was fully aware of all the prejudice and snobbery around it, and I used that to my advantage.
So you think that has actually helped you?
Oh totally, but it’s taken a long time. I’ve just stuck to my guns and fashion has come around. That’s fine. I accepted that’s what I was doing — I was in it for the long game. If you try to predict fashion, you’re onto a loser really because it will probably pass you by or someone will nick your idea. In a way I’m wary of being fashionable. Apparently there was a piece in the Observer recently hailing me as a hero of some kind of a new art movement. I’m going: “No, it’s just me, making my pots.”
There’s an obvious contradiction between the classically beautiful forms of your ceramics and the issues depicted upon them. Is this deliberate?
Yeah — I’m using the assumptions people bring to pottery. What’s good about pottery for me, is that cultures the world over know what a pot is. Vases are a part of everyday life and we all have ideas about what you find on a vase — whatever culture you come from, whatever class background you’re from. I try to play with that idea that people are thinking they expect to see something pretty, seductive, lightweight and non-threatening. And I’m going to put things on them that are social issues, that are uncomfortable and that are going to be challenging to their assumptions. That is what I’m about.
Do you think it allows you to get away with making work about provocative issues?
I think that being provocative is par for the course these days in the art world, but it works both ways. I mean who’s going to get shocked by a pot? It’s like saying an old granny swore at you — big deal. Shock isn’t what I’m really about, because one person’s shock is another person’s boring. One reviewer of the Turner Prize exhibition said; “I couldn’t even be bothered to look at the pots” [laughs].
Are there autobiographical themes in your work?
Yeah, some of them are. Me being a tranny, the issues of childhood, the way we bring up children and the use of an imaginary world to deal with difficult situations in our lives. These are all themes that I work on, so to that extent they are autobiographical, but I wouldn’t use them unless I thought that other people could identify with them. In some ways I see myself as a spokesperson for all the wet pants sissies around the world [laughs].
Claire is just a name given to my transvestite self. The only reason she’s called Claire is, 25 years ago, when I joined my first tranny society, they insisted on anonymity, so you had to have a femme name. My old girlfriend said, “Oh, you’re a Claire,” and so Claire was born. Friends would joke and say, “Haven’t seen Claire lately,” because I hadn’t been out. So it stuck and I couldn’t change the name. So Claire has kind of taken on an identity, but she’s nothing more than me dressed up.
There’s no separate persona?
I don’t put on any airs and graces when I’m Claire. It’s just me in a frock [laughs]!
Does she have her own bike?
Ha! I don’t think she’s ever… oh no, she has ridden a bike. I‘ve toyed with the idea of getting her one with a basket on the front and a chainguard. That would be the kind of bike she’d have. Sit up and beg, white balloon tyres, and a fringe saddle.
A girl’s Pee-Wee Herman bike?
Yeah. That would be the sort of bike she’d have.
Do you feel most alienated as an artist, a transvestite or a cyclist?
[laughs] God, it depends what company you’re in really. I think artist the most, because in some ways it’s rarer to be making a living as an artist. In London, in the circles that I move in, it’s relatively common, but outside of that.
How was the Turner experience for you?
It was funny. You’ve got to remember that it’s a kind of PR exercise with a nice exhibition attached. It’s not the same as any other art exhibition, it’s this great media circus, and I kind of embraced it for that, really. Winning was the icing on the cake except it was like more free cakes. I thought that it ended with being nominated, and having the exhibition at the Tate, and all that attention, and then when I won, it went completely ballistic. I’d left my e-mail address on my website so the next morning my inbox was full of hundreds and hundreds of messages from all around the world. It went on like that for about a month. It kind of dominates my life, though. It’s a bit like any kind of defining thing, like I imagine Jonny Wilkinson is sick to death of being Jonny Wilkinson. Poor bloke; he always looks a bit shell-shocked.
Did it match your expectations?
It was good fun, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. I am now well known as an artist, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a better artist; just a more well-known one. All that makes a good artist is people in the art world agreeing that you’re good. And there’s plenty of dispute about whether I’m any good or not. Matthew Collins said something like: “This year they’ve given the Turner Prize to someone who isn’t even an artist”! I’ve been trying to be a rebel all my life, and I’ve finally succeeded. I’m not even an artist, despite having been one, I thought, for ages. Wow!
Do you work in any other medium?
Yeah, I design things with embroidery. I’ve done a few sculptures in bronze, I’ve done some photography and I’m doing an etching at the moment. I mainly do ceramics, because it is the language that I speak best, and so that’s what I have most of my conversations in.
Have you bought a new bike with the prize money?
No I haven’t and that’s just it, I could afford any bloody bike going at the moment, because my pottery is doing well. A piece of mine at Sotheby’s the other day went for £38,000, although that’s much more than I sell them for. I’ve got a queue of people waiting to buy my pieces, but I only make 25 a year. So they can jump the queue, but it’ll cost them.
Ironically — and it’s the same with motorbikes and clothes — when I can afford them, I can’t be bothered. Motorbikes are probably the things I spend the most money on, and I haven’t even got around to that yet. I’m getting old and battered, so if I carry on [mtb] racing, I think I might get a really light full-suspension bike.
How did you get into mountain biking?
I was always into bikes and skateboards. I had my sister’s push-bike, which I can remember had this curved top tube, and I stripped it right down and put ape-hangers on it. It was stuck in top gear. We used to ride it over the wasteland and stuff.
I remember being obsessed with drawing bicycles on my schoolbooks, because there was no way I could afford them. If something went wrong I had to bodge it. Drawing full-suspension bikes and bikes that were motorbike-derived, with big knobbly tyres. I don’t know whether they had disc brakes, but certainly the idea was there in my head. I remember when they came along and I was like, “urrrrgh!” The first bike I saw that made me think: “Oh, someone’s had that idea” was in 1983. Do you remember those bikes that came along and had a double clamp stem and they were somewhere between cruisers and mountain bikes?
It might have been that. A friend of mine had one in the hall and it looked really sensible for going around London on. Then mountain biking happened. I had skated for 10 years. Then towards the end of the Eighties it was starting to hurt when I fell off. My wife wanted a bike, and I went to the shop and there was a day-glo Marin Muirwoods there so I just bought it. I gave up smoking so I thought of it as 10 months’ fag money [laughs]. That’s what got me into it. The first day I got it, I rode it over Eastway cycle circuit, and, fucking hell, it killed me! Then me and my wife went off to Brighton. We had some friends who lived right on the South Downs Way and we tried to ride to some other friends near Jevington. I didn’t realise how far that was. It’s about 25 miles each way and I thought we’d do that easily in a day [laughs]. I think about it today — having ridden for 15 years — and I’d still have to take a breath. We got to Alfriston, so we did 20-odd miles of it, and then coming back, we were dead. My wife practically went into a coma when we got back to our friend’s house.
Did she ever ride again?
No, but I kept on. It had the two things that I wanted: to keep fit; and I liked the general mucking about, adrenaline factor about it. So I’d go up the forest and do all the singletrack, and this was before it all got worn out. I go up there now and it pains me a bit, because it’s the one place that I know that mountain biking has really shagged. It’s like someone’s front garden that has had a lot of kids running around in it. It did worry me at one point that mountain biking would become this huge, mass sport. But I think the thing is that it is actually quite hard work and that puts people off.
We’ve got a place down on the South Downs, which is one of the reasons we got it, because of my mountain biking. We were looking for another house, and my criteria was hills and my wife’s criteria was the sea, so the South Downs was right there. It’s fantastic — I’ve got a mountain bike trail that goes right past the front door. Within two years I was racing, and what I liked about racing was, after the art world, that you could be nakedly competitive. I could suddenly pass people and go: “Yeah, I’m passing you, you bastard! Eat my dust!” You could get away with it.
I was 32 when I started racing, so I soon got into vets, which was 35 and over at the time, and did one year, then they changed it to 40-plus and took it away from me! That pissed me off. But one of my favourite quotes from a mountain bike magazine was: “Veteran mountain bike racing is 50 guys saying ‘after you’!”
Do you think you enjoy riding because it is essentially a simple childhood pleasure; mucking about on a bike in the woods, getting muddy?
It’s like going for a walk but you get more ground covered. It’s inspiring. There’s nothing like it. It’s coming up to my favourite time of year. Last year it was dry by the end of March, and the South Downs… you get out there and it’s just fantastic.
Photos by Geoff Waugh waughphotos.com
From the April 2004 issue of MBR magazine.