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Exhibition Review: All of this Belongs to You

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Owen Pritchard finds the new V&A exhibition to be a fragmented dress rehearsal for a more honed future show

For the next three months, as you enter the V&A from Cromwell Road, you will be bathed in the glow from a neon light arranged in an arch high above your head. It announces the exhibition title loudly: All of this belongs to you. It is a rather lovely welcome to this excellent museum. They should keep it there after the show ends.

When the government abolished the entry fee for museums and art galleries in London it was a gift to the nation. We sometimes take these places for granted and not often does the public realise the research and innovative work that goes on behind the scenes.

The premise of this show, curated by former AJ editor Kieran Long in his role as senior curator of contemporary architecture, design and digital, is to ‘test the capacity of the V&A as a public entity’ and ‘open up the museum as a stage for debate and discussion as much as a space for the appreciation of objects’.  This is something, one would assume, this popular and world-famous museum does every day. There are four commissioned works by international artists, two exhibitions and 25 ‘Civic Objects’, scattered throughout the collections. The exhibiton, dispersed across the museum, presents artefacts that highlight the way the military-industrial complex has segued into popular culture and the commissions seek to provide new ways of looking at the existing V&A collection.

Of the four commissions, Jorge Otero-Pailos’ is the most spectacular and reveals a secret history of the cast of  Trajan’s Column. James Bridle’s Five Eyes is frustrating; it’s a kind of five degrees of Kevin Bacon played with artefacts and surveillance algorithms, where connections are made not between people but the data that underpins the V&A archive. It has its own website trying to explain the processes behind it. In the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries muf architecture/art engages in an act of ‘reverse restitution’ – two vitrines and a video try to explain the afterlife of the places the objects in the gallery came from. You will have missed the installation by Natalie Jeremijenko, a habitat for insects, by the time you walk in the door.

Two displays, Ways to be Secret and Ways to be Public, are tucked away on the third and fourth floors. The first deals with online privacy and the profligacy of sharing our lives via social media. Here the exhibition is at its most compelling. On show is the Guardian’s laptop, destroyed by order of the government as it held files leaked by Edward Snowden; a selfie stick; a military-grade cryptophone and photographs of the US National Security Agency headquarters by artist Trevor Paglen.

Ways to be Public focuses on architecture. Huge lenticular images by Matilde Cassani (that were on display at the most recent  Venice architecture biennale) dominate the entrance to the Architecture Galleries. Viewed from different angles they show the Italian countryside empty or full of worshippers, depending on the position of the viewer. In a long gallery there is an exhibition that attempts to ‘present contemporary architecture and urbanism projects that rethink the role of contemporary public space today’. It is arranged in five themes: Global, Infrastructural, Urban, Architectural and Legal. It is a strange mix of well-known projects, which kicks off with OMA’s 2004 flag for the EU then meanders along seemingly arbitrary themes until you pop out at the end. The artefacts are a glimpse of what treasures lie in the archive but the commentary is confusing and contradictory.

It feels like a dress rehearsal

All of this belongs to you is a great idea for an exhibition, it picks up on some pressing contemporary issues like surveillance and privacy that dominate the news and attempts to place them in the context of the wider collection. Since Long began in his role there have been attempts to introduce a sense of urgency and nimbleness to the way his department works. With the tradition and processes that underpin this museum’s operation this is like trying to pull a handbrake turn in an ocean liner. Specifically, in the case of All of this belongs to you, the whole museum is too sprawling and complex an institution for this fragmented exhibition to make its point convincingly.

Ultimately it feels like a dress rehearsal for a more refined show.

All of this belongs to you is at the V&A, London SW7, until 19 July.

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