Tuesday 22 November 2016

Review by Robert Richardson of “You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966 – 1970” (exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, 10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017)

An entrance ticket for You Say You Want A Revolution?  includes the issuing of a headset and device that provide a soundtrack synced to the different rooms (and electronic wizardry means there is no need to press buttons). The soundtrack includes the spoken word, but it is mainly pop and rock music from the period. It is as much a part of the exhibition as the artefacts it complements. I think this is a good decision and preferable to having a section analysing music in a cold, detached way: it successfully communicates how music was pervasive during this time. For me, though, it failed to include some of the period’s strongest sounds, where is the edginess of MC5 and Captain Beefheart, and the challenging satire of The Mothers of Invention and The Fugs?

I thought the earlier parts of the exhibition were the most effective, because I suspect they draw more on the V&A’s own extensive holdings.  We are plunged back into a time when “Swinging London” was style central for the planet, and the fashions still look amazing. A small section on Twiggy, the working class “Queen of Mod,” shows her as the perfect model for styles soon adopted as street fashion, more brilliant and alive than anything Paris or Milan could muster. It was also the era of the peacock male, as celebrated in The Kinks song Dedicated Follower Of Fashion. Mick Jagger appeared on Ready, Steady, Go!, the greatest pop programme of the day, wearing a military tunic purchased at I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet (the original shop sign is in the exhibition), a boutique in Carnaby Street. By noon the next day all similar jackets had sold out. Before the internet and mobile phones, television on its own could create speedy trends.

When entering the rooms presenting war, social unrest and protest, the colours drain away and unsurprisingly the mood is sombre and disturbing. A mannequin has the uniform and shield of the feared CRS, the riot police de Gaulle, in 1968, ordered to suppress the student riots in Paris. They clubbed to the ground anyone in their way, not just students but tourists and journalists as well. Close by is footage of the equally ferocious American police clubbing demonstrators for black civil rights. These were violent times, and of course included the horrors of Vietnam. Later in the exhibition, we learn that towards the end of the decade B52s of the US airforce dropped bombs on North Vietnam in such vast quantities that the explosions were close in magnitude to nuclear weapons. I was uneasy about the cursory way the exhibition presented the war, but to be fair, with a wide-ranging agenda this is unavoidable, and of course it has to be there. The war cruelly informed the era, and reinforced a counterculture that both demonstrated against it and turned towards creating an “alternative society.”

I found the presentation on drugs and psychedelia to be the most disappointing section. There should have been more emphasis on cannabis use and the movement to legalise it. The highhanded, hypocritical judgements of those who happily used alcohol, a legal but arguably more destructive drug, are still resented to this day. LSD was legal in Britain until late 1966, and exhibition text states its role in expanding consciousness and a “revolution in the head,” but a video simulation of a 1960s light show (often a visual accompaniment to hallucinogens and psychedelic music) is quite simply lame. I suppose health and safety prevented an actual light show from taking place. The hippie drug culture should have been engaged with more thoroughly: there is for instance plenty of archive material on Timothy Leary that could have been used. Testimony on good and bad acid trips would have also been interesting. One positive aspect of this section is the relating of the psychedelic experience to eastern religions. While China under Mao adopted Marxism, hippies reversed the direction. There was a rejection of the hegemony of Western-centric systems of thought and the monotheistic religions with origins in the Middle East, and one of the most important reasons for this interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen was for some people these religions and philosophies matched insights gained from dropping acid.

San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love is referred to, but the exhibition underperforms by not giving enough space to it, the years immediately leading up to it and those that followed. San Francisco was by far the most important place for the counterculture. What happened there spread throughout the world, via the sensationalist mainstream media and the more enthusiastic underground press such as the International Times (IT) in London. Hippie ideals and alternatives were also communicated by the psychedelic music generated in San Francisco by bands such as Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and It’s a Beautiful Day, and the blues of Big Brother and The Holding Company and their singer, Janis Joplin. There were the Be-ins at Golden Gate Park, and the Diggers, modelling themselves on the movement of the same name in 17th century England. The San Francisco Diggers serviced hippiedom, and this included providing free food as both a necessity for those without money and a radical stand against consumerism. Where is the material giving prominence to these San Francisco phenomena?

The room dedicated to Woodstock is the most spectacular. Extracts from the film of the festival are shown on a big screen, and there are plenty of seats for watching the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. Artefacts from that weekend abound, including some of the notes left on a particular tree: a rallying point for those who had lost their friends in the huge crowd: no text messages in those days!  The enduring sound of the festival is Jimi Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. His playing and use of feedback brought about a fierce musical reflection and condemnation of the violence of his country, both in Vietnam and at home.

The late 60s advanced the causes of feminism and gay rights, and also environmentalism, which is the subject of a strong final section. The hippie communes in America, some of which lasted into the 1970s, are mapped out. Taking responsibility for growing food and living generally in ways that cared for the planet, the communes were a practical response to an increasingly damaged environment. This was a concern of the counterculture that in a time of the climate change denying President Trump deserves a continuing emphasis.

This final section also mentions that Steve Jobs saw the closeness brought about by psychedelic drugs as a catalyst for the internet, and in 1995 Stuart Brand, who in the 60s founded the Whole Earth Catalog, stated that the derision the counterculture had for centralised authority became a philosophical foundation for the leaderless internet. These positions help to explain the quasi hippiedom of Silicon Valley.

I have taken issue with some aspects of this exhibition, but make no mistake there is wonderful material, and the lively exhibition design means that something of the late 60s zeitgeist is present, which is quite an achievement. There is often a pleasing dialogue between general information and specific objects: you can read about the interest in Indian music and see George Harrison’s sitar; you are informed about the origins of personal computing and then can look at the first computer mouse.

John Lennon sang this exhibition’s title, “You Say You Want A Revolution?”  and on display are the HAIR  PEACE; BED PEACE placards from John and Yoko’s 1969 Bed-Ins for Peace, their  “happening” in Amsterdam and use of fame to stage a protest. A few months later in Montreal, they recorded Give Peace A Chance. Let’s do that, shall we?

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (edited by Jeremy Cooper, published by Reaktion Books, London). He is a member of the Biennale Austria association of artists, and recently exhibited online with the Paris based Corridor Elephant publishing project. In 2014, his solo exhibition TextSpaces was exhibited at Eugen Gomringer’s Kunsthaus Rehau in Germany. He is also the co-editor, with William Pratt, of Homage to Imagism (AMS Press, New York).

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