Curating a movement: Disobedient Objects at the V&A

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Originally published by Contributoria, April 2015.

As the world’s largest museum of art and design, the Victoria and Albert has always to some degree straddled the dual roles of art gallery and museum, often blurring the lines between the two. Despite its rich tradition, the V&A continues to hold a reputation as a forward-thinking arts institution.

It’s recent exhibition, Disobedient Objects, was pretty typical of this outlook. The subject matter, namely objects that have played a part in protest movements, was both bold and original. But the exhibition also highlighted the challenges of using inanimate objects to effectively communicate the visceral reality of something like a protest.

The initial impression of Disobedient Objects is one of almost overwhelming awe. A banner declaring “Capitalism is Crisis” is suspended across the cavernous space. Artistic outpourings of dissent in bright colours swarm the walls like insects. There’s even an insanely lurid “Tiki Love Truck” – an actual pickup truck covered in mosaics. Rudimentary plinths made of OSB break the space up and provide the backdrop for the exhibition copy. It feels in keeping with the DIY aesthetic of many of the objects themselves, but the dull beige also provides a nice counterpoint to the vivid colours of the banners slung from the walls.

disobedient objects

In the traditional essentials of curation – namely, selection and placement of items – Disobedient Objects is unequivocally successful. The variety of objects and the types of movement they represent were a joy to behold; the big and artistic contrasted with the small and quotidian. From the barricades made to look like famous literary works used in the UK student protests circa 2011, to the imposing figures of the Guerilla Girls’ outfits – which look like human/gorilla hybrids – feminist activists who have protested against issues such as the disparity of female artists at top arts institutions, there were plenty larger than life artefacts of protest on display.

Perhaps the most fascinating were the seemingly inconspicuous domestic items that had been commandeered for seditious means. One such item was a pan lid that had been used as part of a mass protest in Argentina, in which thousands hammered on pots and pans at the government’s neoliberal agenda, eventually leading to the toppling of a number of leaders across the region.

Another real highlight was the specially commissioned “ceramic interventions” by “extreme craftivist and renegade potter”, Carrie Reichardt and the Treatment Rooms Collective. These inspirational pieces covered over the V&A’s historic facad,e which usually proudly refers to the institution’s inauguration by the “Empress and Emperor of India” (Queen Victoria and Prince Albert). Atop this symbol of imperialism is a stirring invocation of British protest movements, featuring baton-wielding police and bank notes. The intervention stood out among the exhibition as an active and ongoing cultural product, rather than a passive object to be gawked at.

These objects, beautiful as many of them are, can’t really capture the experience of an explosive street action.

The organisers clearly made an effort to imbue the exhibition with greater dynamism, with pieces like Reichardt’s, performances, talks and by integrating objects into the exhibition from protests that occurred during its run. But despite these efforts, the preoccupation with the inanimate objects of protest was at once the exhibition’s greatest strength ­­– owing to its originality – and its greatest weakness, in that the energy and passion of protest movements was not always fully conveyed. In much the same way as a gun or a shell used on the battlefield can’t begin to express the horrors of war, so these objects, beautiful as many of them are, can’t really capture the experience of an explosive street action.

Disobedient Objects very consciously chose to focus on the passive objects rather than the actions they were involved in. It’s interesting to contrast this approach with a current exhibition chronicling acts of defiance at MOMA PS1, Zero Tolerance. The latter takes the exact opposite approach of the former, using footage, both photographic and video-based, to tell the stories of direct action taken across the globe. While lacking the idiosyncrasies of the V&A exhibition, Zero Tolerance does an excellent job capturing the vibrant energy associated with protesting, to the point where it stirs something inside you; the emotion and gravitas are palpable. Despite featuring video footage, Zero Tolerance also feels somehow less voyeuristic. Perhaps that has something to do with the subjects being active rather than passive, as they were in Disobedient Objects.

Occupy Liz

As innovative as the V&A was with this exhibition, it was still very much a museum-style exhibition. As such, these disobedient objects were made to conform to the established norms and rather rigid formula of their setting. What’s more, while it may be forward thinking, the V&A is still patently an institution of the establishment. There was therefore something slightly problematic in bending these symbols of sedition to the will of a such a potent symbol of the status quo. Who was subverting whom? Reichardt’s intervention over the inauguration façade was no doubt an acknowledgement of this tension, but it did not necessarily erase it.

Fairly representing acts of political defiance, diffuse and different as they are, will always be something of a minefield, especially for such a large institution that cannot credibly claim to be dissenting. Nevertheless, the V&A should be applauded for attempting the impossible and the curators did make a good fist of overcoming the difficulties such a topic poses. Herein lies the problem with using recalcitrant subjects – even when they are objects; you can’t always control the outcome.

Images courtesy of Carolyn Gifford, Byzantium Books and Bill Smith (via Flickr). Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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