Exhibition Review: So You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70

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Image: V&A Museum London

After successful exhibitions on David Bowie and extreme footwear, the V&A has continued to cement its reputation as London’s most fun and forward thinking art museum with a new retrospective on the counterculture of the 1960s.

Running until February, the exhibition collects the work of artists, designers, writers, musicians, scientists and filmmakers into a veritable acid-trip smorgasbord of 1960s objects. Focusing on the 1966-70 period, the curators posit the not exactly revolutionary idea that the social upheavals of the sixties should be celebrated, and continue to impact our lives today.

But despite the well trodden subject it’s brilliant fun. Walking in I was slightly dubious about being given headphones; it was a great surprise to find that these stream a collage of sound that changes as you wander around. This is a great use of technology; without the music the period and exhibits make far less sense.

Despite some kinks (some rooms have external music), the sound feels like more than a gimmick; I found listening to A Change is Gonna Come while viewing American civil rights photographs a genuinely touching moment.

On display are various touchstones aging hippies and young copycats will adore; there are UFO Club posters, remnants of Ken Kesey’s acid tests, and inevitably a monster collection of Beatles artefacts.

A feeling of sensory overload at times may put some visitors off. White cubes are replaced by beautifully decorated pastiche-retro rooms, including a mock record shop and the inevitable Carnaby Street recreation. Everything is very loud, very bright and very busy. Given the subject matter- rock music, neon posters and revolutionary texts – I thought this overload worked well.

The admission is fairly steep at £16, but the avalanche of exhibits could easily allow the best part of a day to be spent exploring. The space itself, a constant flood of music and image, is a fun place to be, especially the penultimate room where Michael Wadleigh’s classic Woodstock plays across 3 huge screens.

It was good to see film used so extensively; screens dotted around display interesting shorts, for instance Paul McCartney’s experimental Grateful Dead documentary. One of my favourite moments was noticing the traffic jam shot from Jean-Luc Godard’s Maoist masterpiece Weekend playing in the consumerism room. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup also features, a great subtle comment on the impact of the sixties in cinema, which lasted through the next decade until today.

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Bob Dylan and D.A Pennebaker filming “Don’t Look Back”. Image: Time Magazine.

The inclusive approach across the whole exhibition is really refreshing; when so many art exhibitions place work on a pedestal or play to the old stereotypes of high culture, the idea of music, design, fashion and film taking equal roles was fantastic.

Individual items sometimes seem trivial, but the overall effect is better than the sum of its parts. Viewed as a whole the exhibits create a trippy panorama which gives an insight into the period. I didn’t feel anything was regarded too highly, everything is displayed as what it is: pop culture.

Missing was the pop art implied by the occasional appearance of Warhol’s spectre; some of Bridget Riley’s great sixties work could have fitted well. On the other hand almost everything else is on show; my favourite pieces of minutiae were the actual photographs developed in Blowup.

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Poster for the Crazy World of Arthur Brown at the UFO Club. Image: V&A.

Presentation and content, then, are pretty hip. But did the sixties have an impact?

I felt the exhibition was convincing. Perhaps there could have been more acknowledgement of the shortcomings (I still laugh at the number of cropped haircuts in the Woodstock crowd scenes), but I never felt the exhibition was too one sided. The work is left to speak for itself and in an ambiguous final room we are left to decide ourselves. We are reminded that Nixon was elected (twice) and Charles Manson’s haunting eyes appear towards the end. The exhibition title refers to the notoriously sceptical Beatles song, referred back to in several rooms.

There are convincing arguments, Larkin intoning that “sexual intercourse began in 1963” in the first room. Homosexuality was decriminalised, second wave feminism was born and the exhibition points out that California hippie communes led to Silicon Valley, something not often considered. The Beatles LPs took modernism to the masses.

Does putting all this in a museum establishment-ise it? The period is now five decades behind us, but on the other hand some of the pro-LSD and Paris 1968 content still shocks. When subversive work like this is shown in grand museums is it possible the opposite effect happens too? That the museum is demystified?

To me this exhibition worked best as a celebration of cool, as unironic fun, something, possibly the only thing, the sixties can really claim. My only real complaint was the use of Lennon’s immortal dirge Imagine at the end.

In conclusion this exhibition is a real freak-out glut of art and design. For fans of the period it is a must-see; for most others it’s a fun way to tune in, turn on and drop out for an afternoon.

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