We’re not exactly short of gushing eulogies of the late 1960s, but the V&A’s new exhibition does at least allow us another chance to ponder the formative years of a generation many blame for the near-breakdown of western civilisation.
Records and Rebels does little to disprove the theory that baby boomers had their cake and ate it, playing at being revolutionaries before relaxing into a life of rampant consumerism at the expense of every subsequent generation. What a time to be alive.
The V&A’s David Bowie Is follow-up isn’t concerned with challenging stereotypes so much as celebrating them. Mannequins in Austin Powers getup blink with giant eyes; quotes form and disintegrate on the walls; psychedelic posters and record sleeves clutter every available surface.
It uses the same audio guide as David Bowie Is, detecting where you’re standing and fading in the appropriate music or speech, allowing the curators to micro-manage your personal soundtrack; Martin Luther King blends into advertising muzak blends into The Doors. There are objects of historical significance – the jacket John Lennon wore in the video for Imagine, the battered high-backed chair on which Christine Keeler posed naked for Lewis Morley – but Records and Rebels isn’t aimed at cultural trainspotters. Where it impresses most is in capturing the breakneck speed at which ideology, music and fashion shifted over these years, how a perfect storm of influences created a period of change unlike any before or since.
The first room looks at possible causes for the “revolution”; the erosion of trust in the establishment (evidenced here by the Profumo affair), the rise of the civil rights movement, the increasing popularity of LSD. The exhibition then races through various cultural movements – fashion, music, protest, consumerism – relying on punchy visuals rather than display cases and captions; one room features a Vidal Sassoon salon with a real-life model getting a hair cut, another recreates Woodstock, complete with faux-grass and beanbags. London is heralded as the capital of the world, with Carnaby Street its beating heart (hard to imagine now, with its rows of bland American chains).
The protest section is a highlight, a cacophony of recorded speech and angry music, divided into sections on Women’s Lib, the Black Panthers, Mao’s Cultural Revolution (illustrated with a Little Red Book and a creepy under-lit bust), France’s May 68 protests and, of course, Vietnam.
Everything is painted in broad strokes and primary colours – those hoping for nuanced discourse will leave disappointed. But nobody does mixed-media exhibitions like the V&A. Records and Rebels seamlessly fuses fashion, music, art and history into a dazzling, chaotic experience that will leave anyone under 60 with the distinct impression they were born into the wrong generation.