It was about that time that I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.
— Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Like nations, individuals come to be ruled by their self-narratives, narratives that accrue from failures as much as from success, and that harden over time into images the individual believes unassailable. Identity and symbology fuse. And threats when they come aren’t merely physical, they’re ontological, challenging the narrative itself, suggesting that it may be false. They strike at the individual’s very identity. The narrative has become an objective in its own right – one that must be reclaimed at all costs.
— James Sallis, Salt River
Our sense of ourselves feels constant but our identity is an ongoing performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances. We feel like we are the same person we were years before, but we are not.
— Grayson Perry, Who Are You? exhibition notes
The hyperlink. It is the bridge that builds connections. The symbol of choice and decision making. The glue that binds networks of information. The hyperlink represents a path that connects a breadcrumb trail of clues. It invites investigation and detection. As with Dr Who or Bill and Ted, the hyperlink enables us to travel through space and time. Or, like Sherlock Holmes, to skip and jump through the mind palace of accumulated memories and knowledge.
The hyperlink allows us to edit and narrate both our own stories and those of other people too. It offers both conformity, following predetermined routes, and innovation. We can restructure a novel, as Julio Cortázar demonstrated in Hopscotch. We are able to re-programme the sequence of scenes in a film or the soundtrack we hear on a DVD or Blu-ray. We might choose our own trail through a woodland or art gallery, mapping out our own garden of forking paths, constructing our own labyrinths. Or we can use that corporate process more as guidance, a starting point, rather than as instructions to be slavishly followed.
The hyperlink opens up opportunities for us to play our own metaphoric games of hopscotch. To cross borders, bridge differences, blur edges, exercise curiosity, mash-up, create and explore. The hyperlink is ubiquitous and subversive. It lends itself well to the polymathic tendency, allowing individuals to hop, skip and jump from one interest or discipline to another in games of combinatory play. In this respect, one of the great modern practitioners is Grayson Perry. In his artwork exhibitions, television series, Reith Lectures and books, Perry glides from one label to another, exploring both his own identity and those of the subjects for his pottery, tapestries and paintings.
[Picture credit: A Map of Days by Grayson Perry. Currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Who Are You? exhibition]
In his 2012 series for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, Perry explores class, taste and tribes. He is fascinated by what it means to both belong to and to escape from a tribe. His own autobiography blends with the narratives of his subjects. What emerges in his work and his commentary about it is a sense of tolerance. For someone with a Humanities background, there can be no right answer just multiple possibilities. In his book, Playing to the Gallery, and the Reith Lectures from which it is derived, he argues that we may be entering the age of pluralism. Extrapolating what he has learned from artistic exploration, he challenges: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that the pluralistic art world of the historical present was a harbinger for a political thing to come?’
This tolerance and pluralism is also evident in his latest 2014 Channel 4 series, Who are You?, and the accompanying exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Questions of identity are also central to this series, with Perry choosing as his portrait subjects individuals who are at a crossroads in their lives, whose sense of self has become fragmented, or who are building new identities for themselves. He describes his own role as ‘part psychologist, part detective’ as he converses with his subjects, photographs and sketches them, grows to understand them, then captures their essence in works of art. The blurring of boundaries, the redrawing of maps, the crossing of borders proliferate. From Perry’s own cross-dressing identity and shift from working-class roots to middle-class, art-world prestige to tales of religious self-discovery, gender change, celebrity personas and memory loss.
The exhibition itself is a masterpiece of hyperlinking. Rather than housing the fourteen portraits – a mixture of ceramic urns, tapestries, etchings, sculptures and paintings – in one room, they are scattered through several rooms. They nestle alongside portraits of modernist writers and scholars, Victorian statesmen, military leaders and monarchs. They link to the past – and they subvert it too. A giant tapestry, Comfort Blanket, questions what it means to be British in this age of pluralism. A nice counterpoint to the nationalistic rhetoric and fear of otherness that currently prevails in our society. Maps, too, are much in evidence. Visitors are able to follow a clearly plotted route through the various rooms where items in the collection are on display, or simply follow their own feet and curiosity.
At the foot of the stairs, though, that leads up to the bulk of the collection is the first exhibit, A Map of Days. It is a brilliantly-conceived self-portrait of the artist as a fortified town. One that offers endless opportunities for games of hopscotch.
Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around
Come loose your dogs upon me
And let your hair hang down
You are a little mystery to me
Every time you come around
— Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Ship Song
He’s stronger than the walls
You tried to build around him
To dumb and dumbfound him
For two thousand years I waited for your call
Screaming from the windows
Screaming bloody murder
— Babyshambles, UnBiloTitled