Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Talkin' bout a revolution.

I shouldn't have chosen a weekend to visit the V&A's You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 exhibition. It'd been packed enough a couple of weeks back when I went to Opus Anglicanum and it was pretty clear that the 1960s counterculture was going to attract bigger crowds than 13c/14c English embroidery. You only have to look at the continuing fixation with all things Beatles, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, etc; to realise that there seems to be an insatiable appetite for revisiting the decade in which I was born.

Let's get a few gripes out of the way first. I find the continual fetishisation of this decade over all others a bit tiresome, a tad rote. I struggle to imagine what there is new to be learnt about flower power, swinging London, Carnaby Street etc; I also find it a little bit depressing to watch streams of people obediently pour past these artefacts as if they're in some way devotional or holy. Pay money and line up to worship at the altar of a sanitised past. See the dreams of your parents commodified in vitrine cases but, unlike the baby boomers, don't question it. Just obey, consume, marry, and reproduce.

More workaday concerns were the aforementioned large crowds which combined with some baffling curatorial decisions (tiny cramped rooms next to spacious airy ones and the labelling put in places nigh on impossible to read) made the exhibition a ballache to negotiate at times and the free headphones handed out as you enter, which play a selection of music (mine started with The Who's Magic Bus), jump randomly from song to song, change volume at will, and, even, occasionally, just cut out. I felt, at times, like I was in an episode of The Rock'n'Roll Years (but less comfy) and dispensed with mine before I was halfway through.

Moany McMoanface aside, though, the show was pretty good. It was too vast to ALL be good but there was more than enough there to make it worth an afternoon of anyone with even a passing interest in the era's time. In fact I'd probably prefer a series of smaller considerations looking at the various different angles. One for the politics, one for music, one for clothes etc; But then again I have the relative privilege of living in London and having lots of free leisure time.

Each wall is decked out in quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin, William Blake etc; and you can catch excerpts from films like Dr Strangelove and Blow Up as you pass through an exhibition that kicks off with a brief overview of the Profumo affair. You can see THAT Arne Jacobsen chair but, alas, not with Christine Keeler astride it. Then there's a nod to LSD and a selection of paperbacks from the time:- The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, On The Road, The Doors Of Perception, Atlas Shrugged, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and Cathy Come Home. You can read a bit about the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and the obscenity charges it faced after Allen Ginsberg's Howl shocked polite society.

There's a pair of John Lennon's glasses, handwritten Beatles lyrics, and a Twiggy coat hanger (!). We're clearly in the youthquake of swinging London now. Carnaby Street. King's Road. Granny Takes A Trip. Vidal Sassoon. Terence Donovan. David Bailey. Mick Jagger's Ossie Clark jumpsuit. There's a delightful example of Bridget Riley's op art and quite a few nods to Aubrey Beardsley and, less surprisingly, Andy Warhol. It's good to see the inclusion of, often overlooked, pop artist Pauline Boty. Less so The Krays. I'm not a fan of sadistic and violent gangsters no matter how snappy their attire.

These are all the kinds of things you'd expect to see. That didn't stop the crowds, or even me, enjoying them. But more interesting were nods to auto-destructive artist Gustav Metzger's Dialectics of Liberation and Marxist philosopher and theorist Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle. We were witnessing how the cultural and the political fused at this time. Vietnam. Gay lib. Germaine Greer. Women's lib. The pill. Mao and the Cultural Revolution. The Black Panthers. Martin Luther King. Malcolm X. Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies. There's a white bicycle that would've been left for citizens of Amsterdam to cycle around that city for free. There's that poster of the pregnant man. Paris '68 is represented by Pierre Bernard's De Gaulle Hitler. Imagine considering a world leader to be a potential Hitler!

There's also a small area devoted to the Kent State shooting where four unarmed college students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard while peacefully protesting the Cambodian Campaign in the Vietnam War. Far more relevant than it should still be bearing in mind former Michigan Republican politician Dan Adimi's response to the recent protests at Berkeley. Adimi had said "Time for another Kent State". Even in Trump's America calling for the murder of your own citizens for protesting against a fascistic paedophile sympathiser is jaw dropping.

Some of the more comfortably off had the luxury of being able to take a far more apolitical stance. To this end there's lots of Indian religious nonsense and hippy shit. George Harrison's sitar and other Beatles paraphernalia feature (too) heavily here. There's a poster of Frank Zappa on the bog, Paco Rabanne's Barbarella costume, and a PanAm hostess uniform. We find out that Time Out magazine started in 1968 and realise we've drifted into an era of advertising and consumerism like never before.

Expos. The space race. If you couldn't go into space you could go to Florida or Spain. Vacations were getting to be more regular and more exoctic. Malcolm Morley's Beach Scene (1969) depicted one such holiday. To pay for this, and your Souperdress if that's what you wanted to wear to your holiday disco, Barclaycard, the first credit card, was launched.

It wasn't just money this was costing us though. More enlightened thinkers became aware of the damage to our planet. Buckminster Fuller, architect of geodesic domes, warned in Spaceship Earth of the finite resources on our planet and how, once they'd run out, we'd be in trouble.

Pierre Cardin's view of the future seemed more preoccupied with couture. He said "'The clothes that I prefer are those I invent for a life that doesn't exist yet - the world of tomorrow." He wasn't the only one designing with the space age in mind. Eero Aarnio's globe chair seems just the right thing to sit in and watch the moon landings. You can watch them again here and even marvel at an actual piece of rock from the moon's surface.

Rock of a different kind was keeping the kids from complying. This was the age of the dawning of the music festival. There's a huge, and really rather splendid, Woodstock room with large screens blasting out various performances (The Who, Hendrix, best of all Sly & The Family Stone). It's full of outfits and instruments. Keith Moon's drum set adorned with pictures of Lily Langtry, Pete Townshend's smashed up guitar, and Mama Cass's kaftan. Robert Indiana's iconic Love (the header to this piece) is in the Woodstock room too.

Some didn't want the festival to ever end so they moved out in to communes on the West Coast of the USA. Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi became one of the many anthems of environmentalism and Richard Brautigan, Stewart Brand, and Steve Jobs became the chief ideas. Soon these entrepreneurial beatniks were building the future in their own image. It wasn't long before that hippy dream soured and turned to capitalism in its most unpleasant form. But in the early days of computing it must've seemed like the outsider tech-pioneers, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Honeywell (a ladies computer apparently, hmm), were ushering in a new, more open, more equal, and more idealistic society.

In 1969 the Cuyahoga river, in Ohio, became so polluted it caught fire. Not long before that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring became a seminal text on the ecology. More and more people were becoming aware of the damage we were doing to our planet. The sixties dream was dying. Marty Feldman calling a judge at the Oz obscenity trial a 'boring old fart' was the impotent yelp of a dying culture. Soon we moved into the decade of escalating wars in Vietnam and Watergate. The Beatles split up, the Baader-Meinhof Gang appeared and Milton Friedman led the Chicago School in a new aggressive form of capitalism which paved the way for the neoliberalism that would hold sway over the world for the next half-century.

The dream was over. The exhibition was over. In both cases there'd been some bloody terrible things but way more absolutely wonderful things and, in both, we came out wiser if a little more cynical.

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