Thank God. I hadn't gotten a culture fix since before the pandemic, and in this political climate, it was 2022's perfect exhibition. The Vanity of Small Differences presents a series of vibrant tapestries that showcase the rise of a fictional Mackem character named Tim Rakewell, taking him out of his life in Sunderland and into high society as a millionaire. The artist behind this show is the Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, well-known for cross-dressing as his bizarre alter-ego Claire. He was born into a working-class family in Essex, but he has investigated Sunderland himself and drawn inspiration from the people and places across this city.
The motif of Perry's work involves exploring identity, social mobility, and the class divide in our country, and this art show is no different. These humongous tapestries might have been stitched in 2013, but given the Partygate investigations and our endless ping-pong of Harrow and Eton-educated leaders, they 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 measures a whopping 26 feet wide and is a striking work of art. Even for nonchalant viewers, the size of this piece is impressive, especially when you step up close and see each stitch.
The composition of Comfort Blanket is based on a British banknote. It features a caricature of Queen Elizabeth II, plus a variety of words and phrases that Perry associates with Great Britain, ranging from things we love to things we loathe. Despite this pendulum of passion for and against our own culture, Perry has said about Comfort Blanket the following: "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 dissects Britishness instead of the usual Americana, which I found refreshing.
That being said, The Upper Class At Bay was the work of art that held my interest the longest. This tapestry tells a surreal story of what worries the wealthiest 1% in Britain, at least in the fictional narrative of Tim Rakewell. Perry turns the age-old stag hunt on its head. He imagines the aristocrat is the prey, running from camping protestors. His tweed is being torn off by hunting dogs, whose fur subtly reads words such as 'tax' and 'social change.' All the details amount to things that challenge the system. Perry has captioned this piece: An Endangered Species Brought Down, summarising this topsy-turvy imagery, threatening the world of the elite.
I recommend visiting Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences exhibition at the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens for free this spring. I don't think children should be taken to this show as heavy scenes are depicted. One of the tapestries stitches the scene of a car crash. You can pre-book your free tickets online or buy them at the front desk. Either way, you'll get a 30-minute time slot for a quiet stroll around the gallery and great photo opportunities. There are six tapestries on view, plus written descriptions and an informative video revealing the meanings and inspirations behind Perry's painstaking handiwork.