Exhibition Review: ‘Disobedient Objects’ at the V&A

26 July 2014 – 1 February 2015

 

This summer in the Porter Gallery at the V&A you have the opportunity to visit a fascinating exhibition exploring the objects of art and design from around the world that were created by grassroots social movements as tools of social change.

You are introduced to this powerful theme right from the entrance where the title of the exhibition ‘Disobedient Objects’ is woven into a metal railing barricade hanging from the ceiling. This metal railings theme runs throughout the exhibition, creating a slightly intimidating but effective feel to the show. The entrance sign is just the beginning of a powerfully designed and curated exhibition that takes you on an informative journey from Chilean folk art textiles that document political violence to a graffiti-writing robot and giant inflatable cobblestones thrown at demonstrations in Barcelona.

Keeping within theme of the V&A’s focus on art and design, Disobedient Objects demonstrates how political activism drives a wealth of design ingenuity. The exhibition showcases forms of making that defy standard definitions of art and design. The majority of objects on display are mostly produced by non-professional makers, collectively and with limited resources as effective responses to complex situations.

The exhibition focuses on the late 1970s through to the present day; a time that has brought new technologies, social and political challenges. The first part of the exhibition introduces the design of activist objects in relation to four ways of effecting social change: direct action, speaking out, making worlds and solidarity.

You are first greeted as you walk into the exhibition by life-sized papier mache puppets, constructed by Bread and Butter Theater for use in the protests against the first Gulf War. Giant puppets have long been a tool of social movements; they are a way that protestors can convey their message but avoid censorship and navigate the power of the media. The Bread and Butter Theater popularised the use of puppetry in US social movements, publishing a ‘Cheap Art Manifesto’ arguing that culture should belong to the elite and should be a staple of life for everyone – like bread.

© Bread and Puppet Theatre

You then weave your way through the metal railings to come across a section of the exhibition which focuses on the signs and shields used in political protests. Included are the large shields employed on the front line during the 2010-11 protests against education cuts, including decorated book covers that make political activist puns from the titles such as the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”. These cleverly changed the dynamic of the police’s confrontation with protestors, and this design idea spread to similar protests around the world as it was such a powerful statement.

You then enter an open area of the exhibition which profiles a series of case studies in protest design from the last 30 years. This opens with a data-visualistion mapping every protest since 1979, including the masks of the Guerilla Girls who speak out against sexism in the art world, and the Tiki Love Truck, which is an anti-death penalty statement which takes the for of a mosaic-covered pick up vehicle by artist Carrie Reichardt.

Many of the exhibits are loaned directly from activist groups from all over the world, bringing together for the first time many objects rarely before seen in a museum. Context is provided by newspaper cuttings, how-to guides and film content, including interviews and footage of the objects in action. Each design is also accompanied by the maker’s statement to explain how and why the object was created.

Martin Roth, Director of the V&A said: “This exhibition celebrates the creative ‘disobedience’ of designers and makers who question the rules. It shows that even with the most limited of resources, ordinary people can take design into their own hands. This is a brave and unusual exhibition; these are brave and unusual designers. We are proud to present their work.”

 

There is an accompanying exhibition catalogue Disobedient Objects (edited by Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon) available from V&A. You can also hear more about the exhibition at a Symposium event on Saturday 8 November – more information can be found here.