Two exhibitions at the V&A explore design’s use as a physical and visual tool for protest
Museums often feel haunted because the objects they contain are relics, or what Elizabeth Wilson calls the ‘congealed memories’ of the people, now absent, that handled them. The V&A’s current exhibition Disobedient Objects invites us to think about this intimate relationship between things and the people who make and use them. It consists of 99 objects, made by people campaigning for social and political change, arranged according to different methods of protest. There is a focus on the ingenuity and craftsmanship in the design of the objects; even the exhibition space, designed by Jonathan Barnbrook, uses an aesthetic language of Do It Yourself manuals that emphasises the hand-made character of most of the objects.
All the objects bear a relation to the body, presented as the congealed memories of social protest.
There are objects to protect the body in protest − a gas mask made from a water bottle and book blocs, which are shields painted to look like book covers, used in clashes with riot police. There are objects that facilitate protest with the body, such as lock-ons, which chain people together to make human blockades, and a plan for an inflatable structure at the Occupy Movement, which creates space using human movement. The physicality of protest is a unifying theme in the exhibition, as a quote from the free speech campaigner Mario Savio, in 1964, articulates: ‘There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious … You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.’ The actual bodies of people protesting appear in the videos that play throughout the gallery and the physicality of protest is visceral in these clips of police violence and direct action. One of the most moving objects in the exhibition is a catapult made from the tongue of a child’s shoe used to throw stones during the 1987 Palestinian uprising, in return for gunshots. This points to the role of power, or the lack of it, in making an object ‘disobedient’.
The bodies of people who have protested are commemorated with objects like the Arpilleras, Chilean embroideries that record the violence of the Pinochet regime and the Tiki Love Truck, by Carrie Reichardt, that is a memorial to John Joe ‘Ash’ Amador executed in Texas, which is decorated with his death mask and a vial of his blood. There are objects that are worn on the body to communicate protest, like badges and t-shirts, and there are protests in which the body itself, particularly the female body, is a disobedient object. The gorilla masks worn by the Guerrilla Girls in 1984 are displayed under the poster asking ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’ and a placard made by Carol Stoakes in 2011 declaring ‘I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies’. Both play on social anxiety surrounding women’s bodies and their sexuality to protest the social and political status quo.
In the accompanying exhibition A World to Win: Posters of Revolution and Protest, the body appears in the visual languages of political posters from around the world, throughout the 20th century. These graphic tropes are used to structure the exhibition: there is the raised fist in posters calling for ‘power to the people’ and the body of the worker in revolutionary posters that envision ‘smashing the system’. In the section on posters that ‘bear witness’ images of tortured, murdered or imprisoned bodies record and draw attention to violence and injustice.
Both exhibitions show design not as an end in itself, but as a tool that enables social protest. But design also enables the systems and organisations that are protested against − a police shield, a baton, a bollard, a fence. The exhibitions are a reminder that to understand objects you have to ask about the people that made and used them and why.
Where: V&A Museum, London
When: Until 1 February
A World to Win: Posters of Revolution and Protest
Where: V&A Museum, London
When: Until 2 November