Saturday, August 9, 2014

V&A: Disobedient Objects

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is a beautiful, gargantuan, Victorian building housing a treasure trove of Britain's (as well as many other nations') most valuable artifacts. It catalogues the way that form and function have interacted through the ages to bring us the artistic and useful objects people interact with, and have interacted with for centuries. From chairs to guns to wrought iron gates to statues, all the items in this museum are examples of craftsmanship taken to another level.

But amid all the ornate Chinese tea sets and baroque, garish French dining rooms comes an interesting new exhibit. Just this summer, Disobedient Objects opened its temporary gallery in the V&A. This exhibition is devoted to the art and craftsmanship that goes into the creation of objects that aid in protest movements. Buttons denouncing Apartheid, posters calling for change on Wall Street, makeshift riot shields and the like were all laid out carefully with didactic descriptions of their context and purpose. The room itself was a spectacle, having enormous screens overhead projecting images from various protest movements across the globe. Massive puppets, banners, and picket signs were displayed high up upon the walls. The general mood in the massive room was reverent but not without the air of excitement inherent in protest.

What fascinated me in particular was the semiotic contrast between this exhibit and the museum it is housed in. Here I am, in a grand Victorian building filled with artistic (some might even say stuffy and old) artifacts, and then here comes this hip, fresh, modern, and edgy parade of protest images. This juxtaposition is something one finds all over London, and indeed this exhibition might be thought a microcosm of London's essence. Everywhere one looks, he sees the old, proper, grand, and beautiful contrasted with the new, the urban, the edgy, and bizarre. This relationship is so inherently and excitingly London. The objects in the exhibit denounce dictators, tyrants, and hateful regimes, something the British themselves have done in the past few hundred years. The specific objects are all of international origin, like many of the newer aspects of London's cultural landscape.
This aesthetic representation of the city's character is exemplified once more (disobediently) by this graffiti I happened across on Brick Lane:

An old 19th Century Brick building, stern and beautiful, brightened and made fresh by this modern act of artistic expression. A disobediently placed heron upon this brick fa├žade is exactly the mood created by the Disobedient Objects exhibit at the V&A, and is one of London's most unique and spectacular qualities.

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