Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Museum of Broken Relationships, Tristan Bates Theatre and 38 Earlham Street, London, WC2H August 15th - September 4th 2011

The Museum of Broken Relationships is a travelling exhibition which has been all over Europe, as well as Singapore and Cape Town, reaching its permanent resting place in Zagreb, Croatia in late 2010. The artist curators Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic came up with the concept when their relation came to an end six years ago and they were dividing their possessions. A light hearted remark about creating a museum from the ‘items of lost love’ sparked a phenomenon leading to a collection of over 700 items, donated by people from all over Europe and further afield.

The curators have included a number of key items from the core collection but on arrival in each city they are keen to include locally donated items. In the run up to - as well as during - the exhibition emphasis has been placed on encouraging people to send in their mementos and accompanying stories. This, combined with the two spaces in which the collection is being exhibited has endowed an international concept with a London atmosphere.

Both spaces are in the compact historical area of Seven Dials in Covent Garden and within a couple of minute’s stroll of each other. The Tristan Bates Theatre is a single large dark place with artful, dramatic lighting illuminating each item with a drama that could be rather incongruous with some of the mundane items. The height of the space enables the curators to hang paper sculptures and larger items from the ceiling. A stepped stage area also invests the curios with a certain dignity, as you approach them from below. The wall outside the space is painted black and white pens are provided for you to leave your thoughts on what you have seen.

The other space is completely different. In keeping with its retail surroundings, stands a traditional English Georgian shop front with a large multi-paned window. The outside of the ‘shop’ is painted black with white stems of flowers intertwined with razor wire which sprouts from the foundations.  In the window hangs a bright red dress and the effect overall is pure teenage Gothic. The open door however, invites the visitor into a white, light space. Each item is illuminated by this brightness and their colour is arresting. As this space is over two levels, stairs lead you into the basement but the light isn’t diminished. In this intimate space are two booths where you can make your own recordings or jottings describing the end of a relationship or current state of mind. The notebooks and recorded memories of visitors are subsumed into the exhibition immediately.

The exhibition is designed to be utterly interactive and there is a programme of events inspired by the museum’s arrival. Throughout August there are poetry readings, puppet performances, Q&A with an agony aunt, films, songs and dancing and as it also coincides with the Seven Dials Festival, even the local shops have got involved. The volunteer member of staff at 38 Earlham Street was handing out treasure maps where five clues send visitors scurrying around the local shops. Presumably the thinking here is along Ovidian lines where hunting is cited as an excellent way to tire yourself out, preventing you from dwelling on your broken heart at night.

The VisitLondon blog described 38 Earlham Street as ‘harshly lit’ matching ‘the exhibits which seemed to have more bitter stories attached to them’, however I noticed no differences in the emotions but actually preferred the ‘white space’ because the everyday items seem more comfortable in a domestic sized setting; placed on shelves, hanging from door handles and on low display units. Our familiarity with the space and objects actually emphasises the individuality and personal feelings in their accompanying stories which are obviously unknown to us. Examples which I found to be particularly at home; as a light sleeper myself I can sympathise with the Nasal Spray (2009 Istanbul, Turkey) ‘He bought this to stop his snoring. I could not go to sleep because of his snoring. Now I can’t go to sleep because of the pain of the heartbreak’. I enjoyed the whimsy of A Bag Full of Empty Words (1995-2000 Ljubljana, Slovenia) and the idea of recycling the plastic bag as well as the ‘lovingly kept empty words’. It has a delightful duality of meaning which makes the viewer think, despite knowing nothing about the actual relationship. The final example which is something I remember happening from my own parents’ relationship breakdown is the lonely ‘Her’ Towel from a set of ‘His and Hers’. This is rather aptly hanging from the handle on the gallery’s toilet door. It serves as a poignant reminder that even towels appear to have relationships and can be divorced in the split of personal items.

Other items are uncanny and menacing in aspect, reminding us that relationships don’t always have natural endings and can take a dangerous turn, for instance the Stun Gun, Heroin Test and phial of Demined Soil. Perhaps the most vulnerable and moving exhibit in the ‘white space’ is an old fashioned radio which had been with its owner through peace time and then into the Kosovo war, giving him/her the information and connection to a world which was being turned upside down. Only when the radio broadcasts went silent did this relationship come to an end.

Eye catching items in the theatre’s ‘black space’ are the dramatic white paper sculptures created by Alice Bray. These vary from flat ‘cut out’ pictures, to three dimensional waterfalls of paper hanging from the ceiling which you can walk round and read; one sculpture contains lines from people’s stories. Perhaps paper is a rather obvious material to convey the idea of broken relationships as it is easily torn, shredded, cut and disposable. A far more insistent addition to the atmosphere of the space was the sound art installation which has been created from/inspired by a piece sheet music donated by a New York singer/song writer duo. The repetitive three minute soundtrack emanates from the heart of the mini grand piano as if to mourn the lost relationships and homeless items.

This exhibition is significant in two interesting ways. Firstly there is the shared and sharing experience of life events. It seems to be a growing trend to share what may have been a once private personal disaster with strangers online through social media, or other confessional interactive events. Secondly if the viewer is minded, the exhibition raises questions about the art itself; the notion of what makes a found object a work of art, the significance of the associated back story or text, curators as artists, the impact of different cultures, the significance of the word ‘museum’, the impact and interaction of the space on/with the art, and the combining of different art media to tell a story.

It is an uplifting, celebratory, thought provoking  exhibition and the viewer leaves with an enhanced sense of solidarity and empathy with others; if you’re suffering the effects of a broken relationship, you’re definitely not the only one. 

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