Disobedient Objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum

7.3 / An Unending Theft of Opportunity

Disobedient Objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum

By Jordan Amirkhani December 16, 2015

We are pleased to bring you this article as part of "An Unending Theft of Opportunity" with permission from our sister publication, Daily Serving.

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Sitting just inside the Great Hall and squeezed between two major retrospective exhibitions of wedding dresses and fashion photographs at the Victoria & Albert in London sits Disobedient Objects, a small but powerful show examining the materials, methods, and inventions of political dissent across the world since the late 1970s. Rich and diverse in its choice of objects, the one-room gallery places a strong emphasis on forms of artistic production and labor that continue or reimagine artistic traditions of craft and handiwork—genres typically associated with times of war, political oppression, and belief in forms of transformative utopian politics. Chilean arpilleras (three-dimensional textile murals) depicting scenes of violence and repression committed under Pinochet’s dictatorship in 1979 sit alongside finger puppets made in 2011 by the Syrian artist group Masasit Mati to lampoon President Bashar al-Assad. Gas masks worn by protesters in Gezi Park in 2012 are juxtaposed with chrome jewelry crafted by a group of Black Panther Party members serving extraordinary periods of solitary confinement in Angola Prison in southern Louisiana. Each object harnesses forms of tactile materiality to make timely political statements.

Occupy London Stock Exchange. Capitalism is in Crisis, 2013.

But while the exhibition encourages viewers to think productively about the ways in which the aesthetic and the political do and can coexist, it also forces consideration of what is lost or compromised when these objects are removed from the streets, favelas, public spaces, and prison cells, and then domesticated within one of the most important collections of art and design in the Western world. At a moment when protest and civil disobedience seem to be intensifying around the globe, are these objects flattened and defanged by the museum’s invitation to sit among the golden riches of empires past, or is there something hopeful in the gesture—something truly disobedient?

Rather than espouse a certain “yes” or “no” to these challenging questions, the exhibition’s curators, Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, work hard to confront the museological difficulties encountered between living politics, art, and institutional space through careful arrangements of materials and thoughtful methodological procedures, resounding in a joyous shout of the “maybe.” Developed in active collaboration with movement participants, workshop artisans, and engaged academics, Flood and Grindon harnessed the skills, voices, and personal items of those who stood (and still stand) at the barricades to determine the design and narrative of the exhibition, to transform the gallery space from a repository of the beautiful into a usable archive of struggles, histories, and ambiguities.

Anonymous. ¿Dónde están nuestros hijos?, or ‘Where are our children?’ (front), 1979; appliquéd fabric scraps; 14 1/2 x 20 inches. Courtesy of The Roberta Bacic Collection, Santiago, Chile. Photo: Martin Melaugh.

To achieve this end, the curators looked past typical institutional modes to embrace more unconventional practices. Loans were acquired through the generosity of individuals, as opposed to museums; advice and criticism were solicited from community activists (such as the Brighton-based People’s Republic of Stokes Croft and radical groups such as the anarchist internet-radio collective Dissident Island Radio), and confronted rather than ignored; and objects and gestures were created anew for the exhibition, including the Occupy London Stock Exchange/Climate Camp banner Capitalism Is Crisis, and graffiti by the Syrian artist Ibrahim Fakhri. Additionally, wall texts refuse the authoritarian language of museological classification; interpretation and contextualization is left to those who made and used the objects and materials on display through quotes and commentary, while theatrical reenactment, plinths, and high vantage points were rejected to tautologically reinforce the curator’s motto: “an exhibition from below.” The result of this dynamic curatorial process is the construction of a framework for a supportive, multi-dimensional conversation about the potentialities, limitations, and negotiations faced when subversive practice is embraced by institutional powers.

Detail of the installation of pamphlets, souvenirs, and protest ephemera. Courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Photo: Jordan Amirkhani.

But while institutional power is indeed called into account, the exhibition fails to confront the conditions of protest from “below” that speak from the right as opposed to the left. Where are the objects that point to the adaptation and derailing of civil disobedience in service of equal rights and fair treatment for all? It is difficult to look at Cat Mazza’s Nike Blanket (2003–2008), constructed to generate public debate on the exploitation of labor by global corporations, and not recognize the English Defence League’s own appropriation of the Nike swoosh as a symbol of pro-fascist, anti-multicultural sentiments; nor is it easy to watch footage taken just a few months ago by leaders in the anti-Assad protests in Syria and forget about the ironic use of visual images and video by iconophobic groups such as Al Qaeda or ISIS.

Political spectrum aside, if the exhibition offers any kernel of subversive challenge to the status quo, it is viscerally and unsettlingly addressed not inside the gallery itself, but just a few feet outside the exit door. Looming over the comings and goings of the museum stands a gargantuan statue of Hercules—an ancient metaphor for the ruling elite’s heroic attitude toward state control of dissidents and the conquered.1 Is this a reminder to us of crushing might and the inevitable failure of revolution, or a call to begin picking away at the marble plinth, one gallery at a time?

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"Disobedient Objects at the Victoria & Albert Museum" was originally published on Daily Serving on December 15, 2014.

Notes

  1. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso Press, 2000).

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