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Disobedient Objects: The V&A

Jenny Williams, BA Social Anthropology

It is hardly what you would deem subversive. The nature of the display reflects the norm of a modern art museum in a major city, perhaps not what you might expect from the traditional V&A, with its grand cases of costumes through the ages, delicate ceramics and Renaissance sculpture. It is unusual to find displays where objects have clearly been brought in off the street unaltered, yet it is the dichotomy between the setting and the subject that allows these objects to transform the space, whether posters, banners, giant blown up cobblestones or, as it happens, Tiki Love trucks.

One corner of the room has been dedicated to appropriated protest scrawling. “FEMANISM YEAH” can be found nestled between an ongoing video projection of politicians and academics discussing the current nature of activism and that now infamous banner from The Guerrilla Girls, “Do Women have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum?”. In light of this particular part of the exhibition, I decide to ask Mollie, a SOAS student, artist and activist for her opinion. What I’m really interested in is not the subject matter itself, which is both thought-provoking and playful, but rather what it comes to mean within the historic setting of the V&A.

“I think in a neoliberal climate of privatisation and cuts, where the arts are widely viewed as a) a commodity and b) a luxury, it is easy to dismiss questions of representation and ownership of narrative within museums as apolitical.”

But they are not. The fact that street dialogues and street protest have been filtered into this privileged museum space is not something that ought to be taken lightly, especially considering the importance of space itself as a method of both joining the political and the artistic and acting as an agent in which activism can flourish.

Mollie continued, “Arguments have been made that the appearance of objects of dissent within the “institution” of the V&A (which ultimately seeks profit) is a dilution of their radical potential because they have been incorporated into a marketized trend of seeing protest as profitable…

“The exhibition isn’t perfect, nor does it claim to be, but I think Disobedient Objects is more accurately described as subverting its surroundings, rejecting the idea that we should be amazed at the exclusivity of the objects on display.”

It is true. The exhibition successfully questions the audience’s assumptions of the nature of the artwork available and proves that the V&A is not confined to the exclusivity of ‘high culture’, however this is to be defined. The fact remains, however, that the definition of the space and exhibition itself as a piece of activism is questionable. One of the first posters that you see as you enter and turn right jests, “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your politics”. With that in mind, perhaps it is pedantic to be having this debate about the exhibition space at all. For me the exhibition is fantastic but far from radical, but this does not detract from the fact it has got the public asking questions and, as Mollie said, it has subverted its own norms. Moreover whether something has to be radical to be influential is an entirely different debate in itself. If it’s still on while you’re reading this, go have a look. This is a rare exhibition from the V&A but I hope unlike so many objects in those hallowed halls it will not become one of a kind.

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