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Disobedient Objects

29 July 2014 | Jessica Johnston

Commonplace objects take on a wealth of possibilities, from bikes and badges to puppets and playing cards these objects have the ability to defy, ridicule, undermine and fight!

In the words of the prolific activist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman ‘every great dream begins with a dreamer’. This summer the V&A invites visitors to explore the work of visionary political activists who use art as a driving force for revolutionary change.

Challenging the norms and conventions of art and design as we know it, Disobedient Objects is a defiant display of diverse and ingenious expressions of political activism from across the globe. Using the most basic of resources, ordinary people have created extraordinary responses to their political and social environments at a particular moment in time.

The objects exhibited have been originated by non-commercial creators, who often work under pressure and coercion with limited resources. This exhibition brings into focus these often overlooked forms of making and shows us how ‘disobedient objects’ can and do give birth to raw, authentic and inspiring creativity. Visitors will discover the ways in which everyday objects combine with the imagination and transform into powerful tools of socio political change. Commonplace objects take on a wealth of possibilities, from bikes and badges to puppets and playing cards these objects have the ability to defy, ridicule, undermine and fight!

From the grassroots up, the exhibition focuses on the late 1970’s to the present day. Each exhibit is accompanied with the maker’s personal statement explaining how and why the object was evolved.  Many of the works are on loan from activists groups around the world, giving visitors the unique opportunity to see a collection of thought-provoking objects rarely displayed in a museum.

Before entering the exhibition, visitors are confronted with a floor-to-ceiling barricade wall representing one of the most iconic and powerful disobedient objects. Once visitors move through the narrow opening and into the exhibition an anarchic atmosphere pervades a maze of scaffolding poles and chipboard on which the exhibits are mounted.

Change is as much about making as it is breaking. The simplest of objects can become an instrument that facilitates subversive intent, as seen in the first part of the exhibition with the DIY tear-gas masks made from a plastic bottle, a battered saucepan lid used by housewives in a demonstration in Argentina and the satirical ‘Regime Change Begins at Home’ playing cards designed by Noel Douglas for an anti-war movement. Selling over 30,000 packs featuring the likes of Tony Blair ‘Bomber Blair’, the cards are played around the world, as is their potent message.

Faced with severe censorship laws across many countries, protestors must constantly create new ways to convey their message. Bringing together a variety of unassuming objects and unconventional strategies, the exhibition shows how activists have made considered statements through giant papier-mâché puppets used by US-based Bread and Puppet Theatre to protest against the Gulf War. A display of hand painted cardboard placards made by gay rights activists for the anti-government demonstrations in Moscow in 2012. Defaced £5 notes marking the inequality of wealth distribution in the UK and an intriguing selection of pamphlets featuring a ‘Resource Manual for a Living Revolution’, a ‘Squatter Handbook’ and a leaflet explaining ‘How To Protest Intelligently’.

Viewers also learn of the ways in which certain objects create a sense of solidarity by giving supporters a personal connection to a collective cause. Numerous badges made to support the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa are displayed along side t-shirts bearing the inverted pink triangle worn in the fight against homophobia during the AIDS crisis in the USA.

The exhibition finale highlights protests designed over the last 30 years. Huge protest banners and film projections adorn the exhibition walls representing powerful protests, from the Guerrilla Girls fight against sexism in the art world to the recent anti-nuclear protestors in Japan. This section also includes huge inflatable cobblestones used in the 2012 May Day demonstrations in Berlin. A mosaic-covered Tiki Love Truck by artist Carrie Reichardt who transformed the vehicle into an anti-death penalty statement and a project by the Barbie Liberation Organisation that challenged sexual stereotypes by switching the voice boxes on talking GI Joe and Barbie dolls for children.

This unusual and visually compelling exhibition demonstrates how simple objects can be as revolutionary in design as the politics that inspire them, delivering a final and uncompromising message from those individuals whose life and work is driven by the need for change.

Disobedient Objects is on at the V&A from 26th July – 1st February 2015. Admission is free, for further information please click here.

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