I hadn't been to see an art exhibition since before the pandemic, and in this political climate, it was the perfect show to see in 2022. Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences presents a series of vibrant tapestries which showcase the rise of a fictional Mackem character named Tim Rakewell, taking him out of his working-class life in Sunderland and into high society as a millionaire.
Turner Prize-winning artist and broadcaster Grayson Perry was born into a working-class family in Essex, but he has investigated Sunderland for himself and drawn inspiration from the people and places across this city. Through this exhibition, like most of his work, Perry explores identity, social mobility, and the class divide in this country. What with Partygate investigations and our Eton-educated leaders who like to lie to the people, Perry's humongous tapestries which were stitched in 2013 prove as relevant as ever. The title The Vanity of Small Differences is a Freudian term, meaning the bitter opposite of loving thy neighbour.
The largest tapestry on display is called the Comfort Blanket which measures a whooping 26-feet wide and is a magnificent work of art. Even if you aren't an art lover, the sheer size of this sewn piece should impress you, especially when you step up close and see each stitch. Comfort Blanket is based on a British banknote, it features a caricature of Queen Elizabeth II, plus words and phrases that Perry associates with Great Britain, including things we love and loathe. Despite this pendulum of passion for our own culture, Perry has said about Comfort Blanket that "people still come to our country for its stability, safety, and rule of law. We should be proud of that." I liked this tapestry a lot, as it reminded me of the lyrics of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire, only it was British instead of American.
That being said, The Upper Class At Bay was the work of art which held my interest the longest. This tapestry tells a surreal story of what it means to be wealthy in Britain and what worries the 1%. Perry turns the traditional stag hunt on its head and imagines that the aristocrat is the prey, having his tweed torn off by hunting dogs whose fur reads keywords such as 'tax' and 'social change'; things that shake the system. Perry has captioned this piece An Endangered Species Brought Down, which complements this topsy-turvy image and how it threatens the rich.
I highly recommend visiting Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens for free this spring. However, I would recommend that you do not take young children to this show, as the subject matter is quite heavy and one of the tapestries shows the scene of a car crash. You can pre-book your free tickets online or order them at the front desk, this allocates you a 30-minute time slot for a quiet stroll around the gallery and great photo opportunities. There are six tapestries on view in total, plus written descriptions and an informative video, revealing the meanings and inspirations behind Perry's painstaking work.