Tate Etc

Big Mac guilt Behind the curtain

On his first visit to the Tate archive, the London-based writer Joe Dunthorne finds a Christmas card from Grayson Perry that reflects the artist’s witty satire on consumer culture

If you walk the length of Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry 2009, it tells a story that begins with a gory and explosive birth, from which flows a river of blood. The river passes through childhood, adulthood and old age before pouring into the mouth of the devil. Along the way, the banks are lined by hundreds of strange figures, each labelled with a brand name. GlaxoSmithKline wears an apron splattered with afterbirth. MySpace scrubs the floor with one hand and sends a text with the other. Apple is two hippies dancing barefoot. Smirnoff photographs Volvo. Guggenheim walks Sotheby’s. At the devil’s mouth, Saga is painting a watercolour.

Perry looks at the way each brand summons up its own ‘emotional residue’, as he calls it. The figures, or familiars, bring our own understanding of that brand’s personality into relief, by playing against, or with, or sometimes just ignoring, our expectations.

When a brand commissions qualitative research to determine its position in the market, one of the questions that test groups are asked is: if the brand was a party, what kind of party would it be? What music would they play? What drinks would they serve? What time would they go to bed? How would they handle their neighbours? What other brands would be there? Which brands would sleep together?

It is distressingly easy to imagine the details. The semi-detached McVitie’s soirée. The Adidas warehouse all-nighter. At the Marks & Spencer’s townhouse, it would begin with good wine, a game of charades and homemade mini sausage rolls and end with an argument about GM food and, upstairs, the sad, slow banging of a headboard against a bedroom wall.

A brand repositioning itself is like a friend suddenly starting to wear a leather jacket. At first it seems try-hard, but soon it’s absorbed into the subconscious.

In the Tate archive, I discovered a Christmas card from Grayson Perry – a photograph of him with his wife and daughter, eating in McDonald’s. Perry looks every bit your average, shifty, middle-aged man rather than his twinkly, tranny alter-ego Claire Vulnerability. He is on his Nokia, while his daughter and wife wear Rangers shirts, sponsored by NTL and manufactured by Diadora. This photo, brought into the archive in 2004, feels like it might be the genesis of The Walthamstow Tapestry. The complicated feelings that the photo evokes (Are they serious? Do they eat there regularly? Can irony help me to enjoy this? What does this mean for their daughter Florence?) match, for me, the complicated feelings I have about McDonald’s. When I was fifteen, I went there every weekend. When I was in my early twenties, I boycotted it. Now, I go there occasionally, but hate myself for it. Every couple of months, the word Big Mac dawns on me like a greasy, religious revelation and I make my pilgrimage, alone, to have a quiet moment in a leatherette booth.

It makes sense that this is an image of Christmas, a time for loyalty to families and products. It reminds me of an American billboard from the 1950s, where Santa says: ‘My spirit – the spirit of Christmas – giving – is already in the land. A gift that expresses that spirit, and brings pleasure to everyone, both great and small, is rare indeed. Such a gift, my friends, is LUCKY STRIKE.’