I caught episode 2 of Grayson Perry's latest TV show ‘Who Are You?’ this week. The programme is an exploration of the modern family, in all its forms. Perry meets and immerses himself into a number of wildly different family environments in order to understand their dynamic, relationships, challenges and make-up, so that he can create a portrait that illustrates as much as possible to the viewer his understanding of what family means to them; of who they are.
The end results are manifested in different formats – tapestry, sculpture, ceramics but, wonderful as they are, it is the process he undertakes with each group that proves most deeply insightful.
The episodes move at pace and are carefully edited for maximum information (or selected details), featuring conversations, participation in activities, sketching and sitting for the developing concept of the work, and, crucially, a reveal of the final portrait to the family for their response.
After watching his brilliant programme about taste last year, I marvelled at the ease and accessibility of his TV persona. This is not an everyday run of the mill character. As well as being an artist, he is a work of art in his own right, and as such might not have been an obvious candidate for what could on the face of it appear to be something along the lines of a Louis Theroux exposé.
Not only is he insightful in his commentary but in his interaction with the subjects of his programme, he is extremely to the point, often almost brutally so. There's no tip-toe-ing and no confrontation. His own frame of reference is extremely down to earth. He is direct and they are direct in return. Often photographing or sketching whilst talking to people, you get a real sense of what he is learning being channelled, via his brain, into his artistic blueprints. Like a live rendering of 'who they are'.
His line of questioning takes us as succinctly as it is humanly possible (in an age of short attention spans and reality TV crassness), to the heart of things, whilst maintaining complete decency and positive rapport.
I honestly don’t know how he does it, but I’m definitely going to stay tuned and am planning to see the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery - once I have watched the full series. His art has always told stories, but this TV show adds a dimension to experiencing his work from a position of deeper understanding, of true empathy. This is a case where the exhibition is a documentation of the programme, rather than the other way around. It's extremely unashamed of being intelligent, whilst being incredibly accessible and - because I don't think this is a dirty word - entertaining.
If art can serve a social purpose, Perry’s answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions does this in spades.
There are numerous clips here, but I urge you to catch up and watch the full episodes. A master at work.