Ornate china tea sets, warped casserole dishes, and smartphone apps are all disobedient objects, according to a new exhibition in the V&A’s Porter Gallery, which spans across the globe from the late 1970s to today. Not in the sense that this motley assortment of items refuse to perform their roles as conduits of hot beverages or telecommunications, but instead that each of these objects has played a significant role in facilitating civil disobedience in some way or other.
The tea sets, for example, are emblazoned with radical Suffragette slogans, while a large banner with the phrase “Capitalism Is Crisis” – once at home in London’s Occupy movement – now hangs from the extremely high ceiling; perhaps a metaphor for its lofty idealism. The casserole dish, it turns out, represents the thousands of Argentine cacerolas that were bashed in unison during the 2001 uprisings in Buenos Aires. Elsewhere, there is a placard from London’s 2010 student protests that quips: “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies.”
The value of these objects alternates between as relics of historical memory and as purely beguiling stories. One peculiar contraption is the bike bloc: constructed from a series of bicycles, it incorporates sound systems, food storage, loudspeakers, and even compost toilets. It was used by eccentric environmentalists outside the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. Then there’s the brave Burmese currency designer who snuck a disguised portrait of the dissident Aung San Suu Kyi onto a new note, or the tiny badges worn by Poles in the Soviet Union: easy to both brandish or conceal quickly. The unequivocal Guerilla Girls make an appearance too.
Many objects in the exhibition belong to ongoing struggles, which will supposedly return after the show, and even a cordoned-off space on the wall exists for future objects. It is a refreshingly innovative to curation that has telescoped the process of object gathering from months to days, thanks to the V&A’s new Rapid Response Collecting initiative. As is clearly stated, Disobedient Objects aims to be an exhibition of “art and design from below”, presenting the creative ingenuity that emerges from situations of political strife. “To disobey in order to take action”, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard put it, “is the byword of all genuine creative spirits.”
Touchingly, there are hanging arpilleras, the appliqued textiles made by Chilean mothers to document deaths of their loved ones. There is the 1986 leaflet that sparked the McLibel trial, giant homemade puppets from the New York and San Francisco protests against the first Gulf War, and with lysergic relevance, a slingshot made out of a length of string and the tongue from a Palestinian child’s shoe.
However, Disobedient Objects lacks a critical edge. A display towards the end of the room charts the number protests around the world since 1979, using flashing lights to convey the pattern each month: an unwavering crescendo. But it impossible to escape the fact that this is a one-room exhibition in the grandiose and decadent V&A, even if the entrance is an actual barricade, and metal poles fill the room like towering prison bars. It would have been a coup had the museum succeeded in getting their hands on the Guardian hard drives controversially destroyed by GCHQ, but it is not always possible to politicise the everyday by placing it in a museum context.
“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you,” opined the US trade unionist Nicholas Klein. Perhaps, the disobedient should be worried about this particular monument.
Words/Photo: Peter Yeung © Artlyst 2014
Disobedient Objects, V&A, until 1 February 2015.