I felt compelled to write this following the latest instalment of Grayson Perry’s, Who Are You? Delving into the lives of people who are or who have faced barriers and challenges with regards to their identity, Perry attempts to capture their journeys’ through his own very unique approach to art.
By spending time with each of his subjects, ranging from Jazz, a female-to-male transsexual, to Rylan Clark, of X Factor fame, Perry gives the viewer a very intimate, albeit brief snapshot, into the challenges faced by certain individuals within society.
It was with tears in my eyes that I watched last week’s episode. Husband and wife, Christopher and Veronica Devas, may look like the doting couple. But what lies beneath Christopher’s apparent nonchalant exterior, is the utterly devastating disease, Alzheimer’s. As Christopher slowly becomes a shell of the man he used to be, Veronica – the grey-haired warrior – so humbly fights his battle for him, very much playing the mediator and the victim.
Having experienced the affects of Alzheimer’s, first-hand – I lived with my nan during her battle against the disease – I felt every painful attempt Veronica made to acknowledge, while at the same time, desperately try to ignore, the torment this disease brings. I cannot stress enough how this dilapidating illness eats away at all who come into contact with its relentless character. Harder still, is watching the people you love look on as their mum, dad, sister, wife or brother, become more and more distant, helpless and lacking any sense of identity they once had.
Perry chose to depict Christopher and Veronica in the form of a jar. Beautifully engraved onto what Perry entitled, Memory Jar, it captures the couple sheltering from the demon that is, Alzheimer’s. Protected by a bold red blanket and in each other’s arms, the image almost takes on a role-reversal approach. At first glance, Christopher appears to stand tall and defiant, protecting Veronica from the evil monster lurking overhead. Viewers of Memory Jar, unaware of the background of the couple’s story, could quite easily misinterpret the image, thinking it Veronica who is the sufferer (this was in fact a comment I heard repeatedly on my recent visit to The National Portrait Gallery, where Who Are You? is being exhibited). But what I saw was the hollow eyes of a man, standing tall and lifeless in the grasp of his wife’s unfailing arms. She is the underlying support and strength of this relationship. Also suffering in silence.
While sitting for Perry, Veronica mentioned how she wished this process could’ve taken place a few years’ earlier, when Christopher would’ve perhaps appreciated the sentiment and experience; leaving her with an ever-lasting portrait of them during times a little more memorable they had no doubt become.
If viewers take one thing from this documentary, I hope it’s the simple fact that on the surface, all may appear fine and dandy, but it’s often what’s going on inside; behind closed doors or within the realms of our own, often daunting thoughts, that make us who we are. The clichéd, ‘never judge a book by its cover’, couldn’t be more apt.
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