Upon hearing about the exhibition, it struck me as odd that such an alternative, anti-establishment themed presentation was appearing at the Victoria and Albert. A museum I associated with a collections of fine bone china, and ancient Greek statues, a place that whilst interesting, seemed to be steeped in tradition. It was quite a rainy, cold day when I went to visit. Yet, this did not detract the visitors. When I first arrived I was taken back to my memories of the museum from childhood, still amazed by the beautiful Victorian entrance hall, with its high ceilings and chandelier.
Amongst the ornate marble pillars, I was struck by this seemingly out of place display. An immense hanging metal street barrier, with the exhibition name “Disobedient Objects” spread across it, that was created in a makeshift fashion, using yellow cable-ties.
From the very beginning it was a powerful message of how people in society would use seemingly everyday objects in protests get their message across.
The exhibition was clearly set out with an interesting theme of blackened walls, with strong vertical prison bars present throughout. It was well thought out in that the bars separated the different displays, but also connected the whole exhibit together. As all of the objects in the exhibition, one way or another represented the struggles of many peoples fight against injustice. The theme expressed this well. Indeed, it was very international in context, displaying many different causes from around the world. I would say that the exhibit really gave a sense of the connectedness of all people’s struggles.
The first objects that are presented are puppets that serve a dual purpose. The puppets themselves are two businessmen in the back following an Iraqi Woman, who appears to be carrying a corpse. In one sense this shows the crude reason of which the war was fought for. Which is often said for oil security. Yet there was also the message of how art is often valued for how much it will sell for. Part of this groups aim was to challenge this notion and say that art is not a business, and should not be valued in these terms. Rather, art should be valued for the way in which it expresses, and gets people to think.
Another striking thing that the exhibition showed was the idea of the Book Bloc Shield, this was a giant cardboard shield, labelled with the name of a book. The example shown was that of the famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This was used during a protest around the closure of a library. The shield gave a bold statement by making people think how closing a library was a sin, referencing a famous line in the novel. This made me think how using a book as a shield, was in a sense suggesting how the use of knowledge, symbolized by the book, is the protection that society has against ignorance as this example shows. Further, it directly addresses riot police and may get them to think about their actions. This shows how an object can directly question ideas.
Further, the effectiveness of simple handmade placards was shown. Objects that are easily accessible can still present a powerful message. The placard created for the London student protests in 2011 demonstrates this. The overt sexual connotations of “dirty” are meant to shock, which is effective in raising attention so people will see how shocking their policies are.
Another exhibit that seemed quite interesting was the badges that were created opposing apartheid. The use of the badge, whilst not unique to the end apartheid campaign, is still a very clever way in which activists can work. It is a very personal item, yet also represents a broader idea. The badge, something that can be worn on a daily basis shows how people could visibly represent their opposition without having to place too much of a risk to themselves, but still making a difference. In a way it highlighted how disobedient objects were not necessarily only ones that were brought to protests or organised events, but could be part of a daily, perhaps more subtle form of resistance.
The ever-present issue of feminism was highlighted with the “guerrilla girls”. With a simple, easy to understand message this group of activists highlighted the common inequalities that exist. In particular the art world and the use of women’s bodies in it. The overt power relationship of the subject and artist showed a drastic gender divide. The wearing of Gorilla masks, is not only effective in shocking the audience, but I thought was also a clever way to give anonymity to the activists. This anonymity is used to present the message that this is universal struggle for all women.
Another pleasant surprise that the exhibition gave was the way in which activists can use technology to assist them. At first glance, I thought I was going towards an interactive electronic display (a fixture quite common in museums nowadays). I thought this one was broken until I examined it further. It was a screen shot of a FloodNet attack to fight back against the Imprisonment of Tehran protesters in 2008. To me this showed how the technology of the internet was not just a force for those in power, but also for those resisting. It also showed the global reach of the people fighting against the regime.
Towards the end of the exhibit, there was a wall that covered many on-going causes and how they are an ever present aspect of people and societies around the world. Although relatively short, I left the exhibition with a clear sense of how important, not only the causes were, but how the objects themselves could send a powerful statement, and even help bring forth change.
The V&A must be commended for such a daring exhibition (particularly for them), something that I would have thought may have been in The ~Museum of London. I thought at the time that the exhibition was interesting. However, it was not until a few days later that I realized how ground breaking this exhibition is. In a time where people no longer are passive receivers of information, yet are involved themselves, this exhibition, being about ‘ordinary’ people really taps into the spirit of the new social media age.
The exhibition is free entry and is open until the 1st February 2015 at the V&A in London – so make sure to check it out if you can!
One dark and stormy night I approached a forbidding building and entered…not really it was a very rainy and grey day actually that I visited the Terror and Wonder Exhibition at the British Library! The exhibition as a whole was imaginatively laid out. It was displayed in chronological order starting with the earliest Gothic works of fiction and also looking at the cultural and social influences on Gothic fiction throughout history. If there is one criticism I would have about the exhibition it would be that there was too much on the earliest Gothic fiction areas and influences. I can see why they would want to include these influences but I feel that too much of the exhibition was weighted towards the very earliest Gothic fiction when perhaps three examples would have been enough.
Importance of Dreams and Nightmares
Running throughout the exhibition was the influence of dreams on Gothic fiction with several writers stating that they were inspired to write their stories after a dream. What was recognised as the first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole was one such story. Walpole’s novel resonates with echoes of medieval romances, in fact aside from his writing; he was heavily influenced by Gothic architecture and interiors by building his ‘Strawberry Hill’ house in Twickenham in 1747 he is widely recognised as kick starting the Gothic Revival trend in architecture and interiors widely seen in the Victorian period. This residence became so famous and influential the exhibition tells us that over 10,000 people visited it including Queen Charlotte and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus came to her in a waking dream whilst staying at the Villa Diodati in Geneva with her Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. Seeing the actual manuscript of this novel dated 1816-17 was to me one of the main highlights of the exhibition. I remember reading it I read the original 1818 version as I had heard it was the better version and was entranced. Knowing loosely the story of Frankenstein from popular culture, I was surprised and interested to learn that Mary Shelley really makes you feel sincere compassion for the creature. Frankenstein explores the themes of agency, I felt that the creature was forced to behave negatively in his actions through necessity rather than choice through being shunned by society. It seemed to fuel an early socialist ideology or ideas along those lines.
Influence of Historical and societal change on Gothic Fiction
The industrialisation and rise of the working classes and urban poor was a definite influence on Gothic fiction. The French Revolution influenced the amount of gore that was present in fiction and also presented for the first time the threat of disenfranchised people. The occurrences of the French Revolution of 1789-90 influenced the Tales of Terror (1801) and Tales of Wonder (1802) respectively. With the guillotine being introduced as a new method of efficient and gory execution, never was there a more bloody and disturbing sight. The French Revolution as a threat to the status quo and the movement of Chartism and other uprisings must have panicked the middle classes and this fear was translated into the novels and plays of the time. The exhibition featured the figure of Jack Sheppard who was a thief and a jail breaker and became a cult hero of the poorer classes. This must have also fuelled the fear that the higher classes felt at the time.
The exhibition did highlight that the Gothic castle as a feature of early Gothic fiction was replaced in the early Victorian era with Newgate Prison. They stated that this prison was a modern ‘Castle of Otranto.’ This is echoed in several novels and stories of the time. Most notably those of Charles Dickens in such stories as Oliver Twist (1837-9) A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852-3) and The Mysteries of Edwin Drood (1870) where the windy London streets are overcrowded with the urban poor and who knows what or who is lurking in that dark alleyway? The threat of this newly disenfranchised urban poor was seen as a real threat to the growing middle classes of the time, who were only too aware as the new employers of these people dependent on their labour and hard work that they could uprise at any time. I remember studying Great Expectations (1860-1) at school and who can forget the atmospheric beginning of Pip and the Convict on the fog enveloped marshes and the creepy first meeting with Miss Havisham? If these are not examples of the Gothic fiction I cannot think what is! I had not really thought about Dickens novels being particularly Gothic but of course they are in many ways especially when thinking of certain individual scenes that help to shape the novels as a whole.
Women and Gothic Fiction
Although there are criticisms of the strength of female characters in Gothic fiction, what is interesting is that a considerable amount of Gothic fiction was created by female authors. From the earliest examples such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and including the Bronte sisters’ Wuthering Heights (1847) and Jane Eyre (1847). Women are still influential writers of Gothic fiction throughout the twentieth century and beyond.
Several of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels are Gothic in both atmosphere and setting. Like the Bronte sisters, Du Maurier was also heavily influenced by landscape. For her, like the Brontes moorland was also influential except hers was not the moorland of Pennine Yorkshire but was the moorland and coast of South Cornwall. Rebecca (1938) is her most famous novel, though my favourite novel and one of her most Gothic is Jamaica Inn (1936). I read Jamaica Inn before Rebecca and after reading them both I feel that the main character of Mary Yellen is much stronger than the main female character in Rebecca whose name we never learn and only know of by her husband’s name as Mrs de.Winter. Mary Yellen shows strength of character and physicality and is not easily intimidated unlike Mrs de.Winter who is heavily influenced by Mrs Danvers in believing that she will never be as good as Mr de.Winter’s first wife Rebecca. The enveloping moors of Jamaica Inn and the isolation of the inn itself makes the characters feel as if they are not part of a larger community and indeed a place or world separate from the rest a law unto themselves. Elements of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) could be echoed here due to the isolation of this setting and what happens when people are left to survive in a harsh environment without responsibility towards others. [Note: Rebecca was heavily influenced by The Villa Desiree (1926) by May Sinclair].
The End of Borley Rectory (1946) by Eric Dingwall et al explored the claims made by Harry Price that this Essex residence was the most haunted house in England. This book was also said to be an influence on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Angela Carter was a very strong figure in the changing nature of women in Gothic fiction. Her book The Bloody Chamber (1979) took traditional fairy tales and retold them with stronger female characters who were less dependent on men to save them and were more able to control their own destinies. My favourite story in this collection has to be The Company of Wolves where Red Riding Hood is brave and in control of her destiny and is not afraid of or intimidated by her own sexuality and growing up indeed she embraces it.
The enduring popularity of the ghost story The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and the collected works of MR James have also been taken on by female writers, most notable Susan Hill with the seminal The Woman in Black (1983) but who has written The Mask in the Picture (2007) The Small Hand (2010), Dolly (2012) and others. Another female author who has been influenced by the Gothic in recent years is Sarah Waters uses The Stranger Child (2009) to explore the concept of a haunted house and the closed neurotic atmosphere of domestic decay.
The exhibition featured a whole room of everything Dracula from an 1897 first edition of the book which looked quite smart in its yellow hardback cover. Bram Stoker was influenced by the real life story of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476/77) who was a member of the House of Draculesti and was also known as Vlad Dracula. It seems fitting that a whole section of the exhibition displayed using vivid reds and blacks should be devoted to Dracula which is surely the quintessential Gothic novel and which has had so much influence on popular culture. The themes explored in this section of the exhibition looked at the topography of Dracula and the idea of the forest and the threat of the Other in the form of Dracula as a European predator of English Victorian women. The character of Lucy Westenra is presented as the threat of the new woman a more assertive modern woman who is not afraid to challenge the expectations put on her at the time. She has several suitors in the book vying for her in contrast to Mina Harker who is devoted to her fiancée Johnathan.
The strangeness of other cultures in terms of how they live differently to the English with different language, customs, religion, superstitions and even climate and environment are all explored through the novel of Dracula. There is a general arrogance typical to the time that the English way of live is superior such as dismissing the folk beliefs of the passengers in the coach at the start of the story. Victorian society was starting to go through changes at the time caused by better travel and technological changes. Women were staring to get more power and socialism was starting to rear up in Europe and all of these elements must have seemed threatening to the traditional stalwarts of the time. Therefore you can understand where these stories originated from.
The enduring appeal of Dracula in popular culture is also explored from the I am Dracula play by Bram Stoker which was hastily written prior to the novel’s publication through to the many Christopher Lee incarnations of Dracula in Hammer Horror films through to Broadway plays and [sic…other adaptations of the book into film include Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Nosferatu (1922) and my personal favourite the Count Dracula (1977) BBC Film]. I feel that the 1977 BBC film adaptation is one of the most faithful to the book as it includes elements often excised from other adaptations such as the character of Renfield.
A personal favourite exhibit in the Dracula part of the exhibition was the Vampire Slaying Kit that comprised of a wooden chest full of wooden stakes, a mallet, a gun, iron bullets, a cross, holy water, a bible and crushed garlic. The interesting note about these, was that these are apparently fairly common but were not really seen until the 1970’s which further promotes the influence that the films had on promoting the figure of Dracula indeed there have been over two hundred adaptations of the story.
The concept of duality can be seen in the characters from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stephenson which strangely preceded the Jack the Ripper scandal which had similarities to the violent outbursts in the novel. Edgar Allen Poe’s story William Wilson (1839) about a doppelgänger preceded both Jekyll and Hyde and indeed Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double of 1846. During the Victorian age when people were discovering new things about science every day and further exploring the concepts of psychology and psychiatry, trying to understand deviant behaviours and the difference between action and agency it is no wonder that these stories were created.
The enduring popularity of the undead in Gothic popular culture was also featured in the exhibition. From the accents of Obeah (Voodoo) seen in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) through to the many zombie films such as The Magic Island. Plague of the Zombies [sic…28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead], zombie stories have always been a popular feature of gothic horror. Most recently in fiction, the exhibition featured Zombie mash ups of classic novels which began with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) and includes Jane Slayre (2010), Alice in Zombieland (2012) and I Am Scrooge – A Zombie Story for Christmas (2009). Perhaps Frankenstein could be said to be the first Zombie story indeed what is the creature if not component parts of dead bodies assembled together then reanimated?
Children and Gothic Horror
Moral panics of Gothic popular culture throughout history started from The Monk of 1797 through to the video nasties moral panic of the late 1980s. Campaign against the import of US horror comics between 1949-55 resulted in a change of law by introducing the Harmful Publications Act of 1955. Fairy tales have always had elements of Gothic fear in them, especially those of the Brothers Grimm with their deep forests and strange creatures. An evolution of this can be seen with more recent re-tellings of such stories such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and The Company of Wolves film (1984), Tinder (2013) by Sally Gardner (a retelling of The Tinderbox), Coraline (2007) by Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket (1999-2006), Gormenghast (1950), Alice Hoffman’s books, A Monster Calls (2001) by Patrick Ness, Goth Girl (2013) and Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror (2007) which is a mash-up of MR James and Edgar Allen Poe. Focus on how classic Gothic fiction is being re-packaged to appeal to a new generation exhibition showed a copy of Wuthering Heights with a new cover mirroring the Twilight books covers and also featuring the blurb ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’ on the front cover.
Another element that could be added to here is the adaptation of classic horror stories or reinvention of stories for a young audience especially in TV and film. The director Tim Burton immediately springs to mind with his Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Also, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes that have featured for many years at Halloween since 1990.
The exhibition also featured Gothic film and TV adaptations from literature including: Stephen King’s The Shining, (from which they also included the screenplay) The Wicker Man, Hammer Horror films and Hellraiser. There was a focus on The Hound of the Baskervilles and its parody by Aardman Animation The Curse of the Wererabbit. Throughout the exhibition at various times the parody of horror was explored from the time of the Romantic and throughout the Victorian period and beyond; there was an emphasis on satirising horror as displayed in Punch cartoons, through to Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian era and including the overblown Hammer Horror films right up to now where we have seen mash-up fiction and parodied films such as Frankenweenie and The Curse of the Wererabbit.
Overall, the exhibition clearly showed the enduring popularity of Gothic literature and its influence on further popular culture. I think that the impression that I took away with me that yes, the Gothic does have an appeal to certain Goth and Emo subcultures but that it is also mainstream too through the pervasive influence of tales such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Hound of the Baskervilles all of which have been adapted many times for film how the Gothic is not just something on the outer fringes of society but is very influential today and will be ever more so in years to come. If you can get a chance to visit the exhibition then I would highly recommend it, it runs till 20th January 2015.
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