Tapestry (Edition of 6 plus 2 artist’s proofs)
Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice
In this work, the British artist Grayson Perry pays tribute to the hard-working miners who have lived their lives in a rough culture with a tough job in the country’s coal mines. The tapestry features a funeral scene. The colour scheme is kept in simple black, white, red, and purple on a yellowish background. A gathering of people in the lower part of the picture encircles a coffin, turned to face us in the manner of a medieval fresco, allowing us to glimpse the dead miner inside the coffin. Behind, a townscape featuring a mine shaft, a church, a bridge, and windmills on the horizon, recalling modern society. The upper part resembles a coat of arms. The family is neither royal nor noble, but two workers being celebrated beneath the tools of their trade, a pickaxe and a boxing glove. Above them, it reads: We work for the future and grieve for the past. The reference to the hard-working worker identity and the Protestant work moral is a direct one: salvation awaits us in Heaven after a long and toilsome life. The grief when everything is too late is all too apparent in the picture. As in many other works by Perry Grayson, whose artistic practice is bound up in portraying English class-divided society, the full cycle of life is contained in one single motif. From the grieving boy holding his teddy at the very centre of the picture to the deceased miner lying in the coffin.
The industrial revolution emerged in England in the mid-eighteenth century, spreading to the USA, Germany, and Denmark and on into the wider world, causing enormous social changes in its wake as a result of technological developments. The appearance of a new working class and a growing urbanisation changed the political agenda in the entire Western world. With the industrialisation, work had now shifted from the home into the new workplaces in the cities and wages were subsequently calculated relative to the number of hours spent in the workplace.
Hard physical wearing of the body might leave its mark on the life of a worker. In Denmark, iron workers had to work a sixty-hour week in 1900 whereas today, we only work a thirty-seven-hour week. Things might still look very different elsewhere in the world. The length of the working week is still subject for discussion and the work-life balance and securing a more sustainable working life are now uppermost in the minds of more and more people. Will we, in future, discover other ways in which to measure the value of work than merely clocking in and out, a philosophy which, to all intents and purposes, is a relic from the industrialisation?