May Day in Berlin, Palestinian uprisings and Putin protests: Disobedient Objects at the V&A

By Christian Engel | 25 July 2014

Exhibition review: Disobedient Objects, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, July 26 2014 – February 1 2015

Click on the picture to launch a gallery from the show

Showcasing the things that demonstrators use to attain their goals and convey their messages, Disobedient Objects emphasises the artistic dimensions of protest, featuring 99 objects ranging from graffiti-writing robots to the lock-ons that make demonstrators unmovable.

These are not unified by a common aesthetic, but by the pursuit of their creators to change the world, stemming from protests as far back as the late 1970s.

Coral Stoakes, I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies (2011)© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“Even in the age of the internet, actual objects have not lost their importance”, says Catherine Flood, the curator of the exhibition.

“Intervening in media representation of events is one of the most important purposes of the objects.

“While online protest is normally only visible to a limited public, physical intervention makes the resistance graspable to a broader public.”

Two inflatable cobblestones – among the many highlights of the exhibition – are a case in point: the gigantic silver shiny cuboids were used during the May Day protests in Berlin 2012.

“We wanted to transform protest into something joyful”, says Artúr van Balen, from Tools for Action, the Berlin-based network behind the inflatables.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“The purpose of the cobblestones is also to challenge the cliché of the stone-throwing trouble maker.”

“While they tried to remove the cobblestones with their truncheons, it was actually the police that appeared to be violent.”

A slingshot made out of the tongue of a child’s shoe, used during the 1987 Palestinian uprising against Israel, is a reminder of non-peaceful protest.

The Tiki Love Truck commemorates John Joe “Ash” Amador, executed in 2007 in Texas for a murder he claimed to have never committed.

Decorated with Polynesian art and with the death mask of Ash on its top, the vehicle is a sign against the cruelty of the death row.  A little shrine inside the car contains some of the remains of the dead – his hair, nails and a phial of his blood.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“This car is supposed to give Ash an afterlife,” says Carrie Reichardt, a British artist who designed the truck and was a close friend of Ash.

Several objects protest against everyday sexism. “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” asks the question in a poster by the feminist organization Guerilla Girls, depicting a nude painting of a woman with a gorilla head above a text revealing that while only four percent of the artists in the Modern Art section of the famous museum are women, 85 percent of the depicted nudes are female.

In front of the poster, three female mannequins wear ghastly masks. Elsewhere, a screen shows a news report about an unusual form of protest against sexism that took place in the United States in 1993, when the Barbie Liberation Organisation swapped the voices of Barbie and GI Joe to stand up against gender stereotypes.

Some impressive posters are also part of the show. “I wish my boyfriend was as dirty as your policies”, reads one of the signs with which young Britons demonstrated against the tripling of university tuition fees in 2011.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
“We won’t give it to Putin a third time”, reads the slogan on the placard created by a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual group.

Other exhibits surpass the distinction between online and physical protest: an app game, Phone Story, guides its players through the appalling production process of their smart phones.

Players have to force 2d-children to mine coltan in the Congo and prevent factory workers in China from committing suicide. In an ironic sense, the game was successful: Four days after its release, it was banned from Apple’s iTunes store.

Next to a screen showing video clips of the violent suppression of protests, graffiti faces loom on the wall.  They belong to young men and women killed by the al-Assad regime during the Syrian civil war.

Stencils with the features of the victims were spread over the internet to disseminate them across the Middle Eastern country. Against the backdrop of a black, green and yellow flag from Apartheid South Africa, another design reads: “the people shall govern.”

These disobedient objects may have wildly differing contexts and backgrounds, but their latent, impassioned sentiments are messages with a shared power.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Friday, closed December 24-26). Admission free. Follow the V&A on Twitter @V_and_A.

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