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Music, Sex, Drugs, Art and Politics; You Say You Want A Revolution at the V & A

October 18, 2016

ArtsMixed Media | by Harry Seymour

The ’60s are back in a big way, and the hints are everywhere if you just know where to look. The drive to emulate a different time is not, however, something new. It is in fact a recognised reaction to times of unrest, and manifests in the adoption of trends and approaches to life in a time that either seems better, or has tackled similar issues.

The V&A, always one to be counted on to provide beauty, entertainment, and food for thought is addressing our recede to the ’60s in its new exhibition. Covering life from 1966 to 1970 and looking mainly at the United States and the U.K., You Say You Want A Revolution looks at how music, sex, drugs, art, and politics changed and in turn changed the world. 

Installation Image for You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70
Installation Image for You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70

The exhibition starts with no fanfare, with each visitor receiving a headset as they approach the exhibition entrance. The first display is equally demure. A wall of record covers frame a screen on which various personalities appear accompanied by (their) quotes on the ’60s. The voices can only be heard in the individual headset, immediately creating a sense of a private experience.

The first room sets the scene with the help of music memorabilia, displaying an array that the Hard Rock Cafe is probably drooling at at this very moment. From original lyric sheets belonging to John Lennon to projections of Bob Dylan, this room paints a clear picture. Perhaps the most notable feature, however, is the music and sounds coming out of those modest headphones. The synchronisation of the sounds delivered by each headset with its wearer’s movement within the space allows for a very special connection to be made with the exhibits and the exhibition, right off the cuff.

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, 'Revolution' 1968 by Alan Aldridge
The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, ‘Revolution’ 1968 by Alan Aldridge

Each of the rooms offer a comprehensive history of the era focusing on various aspects such as fashion, music, advertising, and general social upheaval, with additional context given when it is due. Subjects both light and heavy are tackled, creating an honest commentary as to the upsides and downsides faced by the baby boom generation. Walking through examples of apparel of the time (Twiggy naturally gets a fair few mentions) and other aspects of popular culture as well as ground breaking literature such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch offer a compelling, stimulating, and intellectually challenging experience.

A special mention must be given to the room tackling activist groups, social and civil rights movements, and general rebellion against the system whether on the basis of gender, sexuality, or race. While the costumes and memorabilia offers pleasant respite, these exhibits really speak out, even though not exactly part of the “groovy” image that is more widely publicised. A Time magazine copy from 1969 shows the first major article published by a large publication on gay men in America, only to conclude that homosexuality is a disease. Examples such as these make a poignant point as to the struggles that were encountered by minority groups then, mainly exploring issues which still resonate today. Walking past a black panthers poster, it is hard not to relate these exhibits and their cry for change to some of the events we have seen in the very recent past and, sadly, present.

Installation Image for You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70
Installation Image for You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70

A round up of the values and driving forces behind what made the ’60s iconic is aptly presented with parallels to today’s social and political landscape in the last room of this exhibition. Rather beautifully, it all concludes with optimism; Lennon’s Imagine accompanies the last exhibits as visitors step out into the next century, leaving a feeling of rebellion, hope, and fashion tips to keep this revolution going in our times.

Alexandra Constantine 

You Say You Want a Revolution, the Victoria & Albert Museum until February 26 2016.