Long

At the Festival of Love

When Kathleen and I arrived at the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love, we encountered a circle of people blowing kisses to one another, their bags piled in a corner against a wall. They waved their arms and clapped, ran in circles, cheered, grabbed one another’s hands and spun around, spilling out of their circles. People threw their bodies against a nearby wall, kissed the concrete, and closed their eyes in apparent delirium.

“Is that a performance art project, do you think?” I asked her. “Do those people know one another?”

It seemed they did not. Others asked hesitantly if they could join the group, and the group cheered and applauded their arrival. They formed a circle again and each person, in turn, stepped to the centre as the others cooed and gestured with their arms. Somebody asked a nearby toddler if he wanted to stand in the centre of the circle. He shook his head, and the group blew kisses to him as he hid behind his mother’s legs.

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Each year, the Southbank Centre chooses a theme for their summer activities, and arrange decoration, exhibitions and performances accordingly. In 2011, they celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Festival of Britain. In 2012, it was the Festival of the World, and 2013 saw the Festival of Neighbourhood. In 2014, the Southbank Centre is hosting the Festival of Love.

There are displays of visual art across the complex, from Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich’s inflatable ‘Siege Weapons of Love’ to the Hayward Gallery’s huge summer exhibition, The Human Factor. There is a display of advice columns from the 1960s. The Museum of Broken Relationships have staged an exhibition. There is a karaoke lounge, and a bar designed like a motel. The Southbank Centre have commissioned street artists to paint murals. The British Film Institute are screening romantic films, from Casablanca to The Graduate. There are mass meditation sessions, workshops for translating Rainer Maria Rilke and a choir performing Motown love songs. There are fountains and slides, and a Tunnel of Love.

It often feels like the Southbank Centre is looking backwards, and this summer is no exception. I am reminded, every year, of 1951’s Festival of Britain, which was itself held for the centenary of the Great Exhibition, and for which the Southbank Centre was built. There is a display dedicated to the Festival of Britain on the second floor of Royal Festival Hall, which turns souvenirs – scarves, pins and small models of the Skylon – into triggers for nostalgia.

The Festival of Love celebrates both past and present, as did the Festival of Britain. This year’s theme was chosen, in part, to commemorate the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act, passed into law in March. The spaces, though, are dominated by imagery of the late twentieth century. The Festival of Love plays with our nostalgia; it plunges us into positive memories. The Southbank Centre has always been gently utopian: it presents a progressive vision of the future, but not a particularly radical one.

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The Museum of Broken Relationships is based in Zagreb, but regularly stages exhibitions around the world. This is the second exhibition to be held in London. The Museum invites people to donate objects from past relationships, which are arranged by artist-curators Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic. There is a range of objects displayed, from love letters to leather satchels. The stories beside them are written by their former owners, who have been made anonymous.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is usually discussed as a place for closure, where donors can discard difficult memories and where visitors can find their own experiences mirrored in those of others. It’s the fragmented nature of these stories, though, and the strange ways in which people think, that I found interesting.

One woman donates the boxing glove with which she knocked out her partner’s teeth. She doesn’t appear to feel remorse, and ends the story by detailing her improvements in physical fitness: “I am not with him anymore, but now I’m able to do ten consecutive bar lifts and climb the rope”. One man donates an x-ray his first girlfriend gave him for a birthday, on which she wrote that the shoulder meant something because she loved him with her whole body, not merely her heart. His response to this is shockingly cold: “that cheap bitch”.

Illustration: Melisa Trujillo
Illustration: Melisa Trujillo

This space feels haunted by those telling the stories and those they speak about, in part because these figures – now anonymous – are shaped by the visitor’s imagination, and by language. I kept laughing at bad metaphors, and then feeling guilty for this. It is difficult, in such a stylised and distanced environment, to register these sentences as expressions of pain. Some read as the semi-constructed confessions of failed writers. It is hard not to laugh or cringe at a story that begins “most gay relationships are like digital cameras.”

The body is central to the experience of love, and these stories all concern bodies. There is a boxing glove and an x-ray, but there are also five die (“when I role them in the palms of my hands, it feels like I’m holding his hands in mine”), items of clothing, train tickets, teddy bears and a larding needle for roasting pheasant. One woman, in place of the sexually transmitted disease she would like to discard, has donated a painting of her vagina. The bodies involved in these relationships are constantly referenced, and always absent.

There is an archaeological element to the Museum of Broken Relationships. Objects are laid out against white backdrops, almost surgically, for inspection. It is conventional in museums to avoid touching exhibits, but glass barriers act as a further reminder of this. We are expected not to turn the pages in the notebook left open to a picture of a bear, but we are also – now – physically unable to turn them. We think of these objects in other places, held by mysterious hands. We dwell on signs of use, on the colours that have been worn off the surface of a baseball, as evidence that they meant something to someone.

The only object which is not under glass is a Moroccan vase, standing on a plinth. “I fell in love with Adam in the beginning when he was a gentleman and a scholar. By the end he was a narcissistic asshole,” reads the caption. “Now I look at [the vase] and want to smash it.”

The visitor, here, could break the vase. We might want to if the language was more compelling, I think, or perhaps if we identified strongly with the narrator.

It stands, though, unbroken, and words play the role of glass. Language can make it easier to enter the world of a relationship, but can also interrupt our access, remind us of our distance. Glass, like language, is not neutral. It is transparent and yet reflective; it distorts the world. It clarifies and confuses. It protects, and yet is fragile itself. Glass is the stuff of test tubes in laboratories and mirrors in amusement parlours, science and surrealism.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is like a reliquary in many ways. These are objects that connect us to bodies, but the bodies they evoke are absent, replaced with our own.

Illustration: Melisa Trujillo
Illustration: Melisa Trujillo

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The Southbank Centre has structured the Festival of Love around seven paradigms. There is Agape, the love of humanity, and Philia, shared experience. There is Pragma, love which endures, and Philautia, self-respect. There is Eros, romantic and erotic love, and Ludus, flirting and playful affection. There is Storge, family love.

Friendship seems strangely overlooked in the Southbank Centre’s system of classification.

I went to the Festival of Love with one of my best friends, Kathleen, who moved to New Jersey last year. Before this, Kathleen and I saw each other almost daily. We ate most meals together, prepared for parties together, played table tennis and swam together on hot days. We were both, then, physically present. Kathleen was only in London briefly this summer, and the only time we saw each other was at the Festival of Love. Our friendship, now, is experience translated into text and image; we receive fragments of one another’s lives on postcards and in emails.

It’s typical to experience the body differently in friendship than in romantic relationships, and the significance of the body to friendship is often overlooked. We usually feel physically at ease around our friends; we hug them, often, and we can have conversations about our bodies with them. Our emotional relationships are mirrored in our physical relationships. If our friends move, we say that we’ll talk all the time, but do not mention the spontaneous interaction that occurs when friends live nearby. Language is important to friendship, but laughing, drinking iced tea, dancing and dressing like Elvis are important, too.

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The I Think I Love You Lounge, another of the Southbank Centre’s installations, promised costumes and karaoke. Designed by Jessica Voorsanger, an American artist working in London, it explores the love of celebrity, and the ways in which we emulate our idols. The aesthetic, here, is retro, very much of the late 1960s or early 1970s: the wallpaper is patterned with brown, orange and yellow circles; there are purple and red beanbags on the floor, and one of Eero Aarnio’s iconic ball chairs; the coloured lights change regularly, and are thrown about the room by a disco ball. It works well with the space, underneath Queen Elizabeth Hall, which dates from 1967.

Voorsanger has hung oil portraits of late twentieth-century celebrities on the wall. This is a room for nostalgia, for entering the past; the chosen celebrities are iconic, figures synonymous with particular cultural moments. Elvis, KD Lang, Diana Ross, David Bowie and the Spice Girls are here, among others. Wigs and costumes hang underneath the images, inviting visitors to dress as the celebrities. There is a sense that the visitor will complete something; the grey suits representing the Beatles are limp and lifeless against the wall, waiting for the fan to activate them.

I remember, looking at the Spice Girl costumes, the recurrent theme of classmates’ birthday parties in fourth and fifth grade. We were always being asked to dress as our favourite Spice Girl, and we manifested our burgeoning identities through the decision. As we’ve grown older, the role of celebrities in our own image-making has grown more subtle and layered, but it’s easy to see the continuation of this tradition in the teenagers who tease their hair and buy MAC lipstick in order to emulate Lorde.

The celebrities that we follow, then, play a role in shaping our engagement with our bodies. Again, though, the Festival of Love reminds us that language, too, is significant. We can dress up as musicians, here, but we can also sing their songs, and it’s often identification with lyrics that draws us to particular figures. The Spice Girls sang about friendship and female empowerment, and it was this – alongside marketing and peer pressure – that attracted the young girls of the 1990s. Lorde, more recently, sings of the distance between growing up in the suburbs and the glitzy commerce shown on television, and that, too, resonates.

There’s something magical about this decorated room, even for those who feel no fondness for the celebrities. I remember dressing up as a Spice Girl for a party, but I also remember spending most of the evening crying in the bathroom. I don’t want to occupy that costume, reminiscent of fifth grade, which was a time of misery for me. Kathleen and I choose Elvis instead, that figure of collective nostalgia, apart from our own lived experience, and she puts on the costume (gold jacket and pants, ruffled shirt, gold boots, black wig) while I laugh, take photographs and reminisce happily about studying Elvis in Cinema Studies as an undergraduate.

There is a mirror in the corner of the room, where visitors can see themselves transformed, distanced from oneself, framed like portraits of celebrities. Kathleen, looking in the mirror, is at once Elvis and herself.

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The Southbank Centre, of course, has opportunities for eating and drinking alongside performative spaces. The Festival of Love, like the Festival of Britain and the tradition to which both belong, are events that merge the cultural and the commercial. There is a food market behind Festival Hall, and a garden atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall sells astonishingly expensive cocktails.

The Heartbreak Hotel is the most interesting of the bars. It is through this space, themed after a motel from the 1970s, that visitors enter and exit both the Museum of Broken Relationships and the I Think I Love You Lounge. Bodies, once again, are both referenced and made distant. We are greeted by a two-dimensional cardboard bellhop, and there are keys for rooms hanging behind the bar, reminding us of the seedier dimensions of motels, as places for trysts.

“See someone you fancy?” reads a piece of paper.

If we do, we can call them, using the vintage telephone at the centre of our table. In approaching somebody in this way, the encounter is stretched, fragmented: words, heard close to the ear, are separate from the body, seen across a room. This is courtship exhibited and examined, under glass. There is a disconnect, here, but there is also connection: language creates links, rewrites proximity and draws tables together. One person can, through telephones and the spoken word, be present at two tables simultaneously.

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The Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love will end with a series of mass weddings on the last weekend of August. There will be free ballroom dancing classes held outside, beside the river, and anyone in possession of a wedding dress is invited to join a mass wedding photograph. There will be an inflatable wedding chapel, and visitors can borrow wedding dresses to wear while bouncing around. The weekend’s focus, though, is on the six wedding ceremonies, each for twenty couples, that will be held in Royal Festival Hall.

It is language, in marriage, that ties bodies together. At the Festival of Love, all couples will exchange standard vows, and will be bound – by the shared ceremony – with those who are married alongside them, and with Royal Festival Hall itself. In the brochure, couples discuss their memories of first dates and family outings. One couple write that they “can finally join [their] married brothers, sisters and friends in this wonderful institution”. It isn’t clear if they mean marriage or the Southbank Centre.

The Festival of Love is a place for private experience made communal, and this finale is fitting. At these weddings, we are all invited to celebrate the intimacies of strangers, made individual by the lilt of their voices as they read their vows. Elsewhere, across the Southbank Centre, we have found our own individual experiences within crowds, shaped by our own relationships with bodies and our interpretations of text. We are all bound, through our memories, to the Festival of Love, to blown kisses, to costumes and to objects under glass.


Anna Blair is a PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Cambridge University. Her research examines colonial space and nostalgic modernity in interwar Paris. While currently working at the MOMA in NYC, she tweets at @annakblair.