Alone again. I had two tickets. VIP ruddy tickets and no one bit. Although having been to the exhibit, let it not be said that the students of Imperial had bad taste. I jest. Some.
Hislop occupies an odd place in our national consciousness. He enjoys acting like an outsider, happily jeering at the “establishment” yet does this from his position as an established and comfortable member of it. Even his position as “the most sued person in England” (Independent, 2011) does little to distance him from the people he attacks. A wise man once said “A BBC panel show does not an anarchist make”. In I Object, Hislop attempts to make a virtue out of cocking a snoop at the powerful and weaves a narrative through a history of people doing so. He tries to show that he is only the latest iteration in a long line of comics and satirists that stretches back through history.
It is an interesting idea and a laudable one. The British Museum stands for empire, even more so than Hislop, and their willingness to acknowledge alternative histories is a positive development. There is, however, a problem. I am not sure that this narrative exists. Cruikshanks, the 19th century cartoonist and icon of Hislop’s (he has written a play about him), features heavily and delights with humorous, crude and colourful depictions of anyone from the king to the common man. This is a man after Hislop’s heart and it shows. However, yet again, there is a flip side. Cruikshanks was also known for his xenophobic views and his anti-abolitionist drawings, curiously absent from the exhibition.
At the other extreme, the woven Afghan rugs that feature Soviet tanks and South Korean lino prints of elderly, weeping workers are a far cry from the cheeky thumbing of the nose that Hislop aspires to. These are visual cries of horror and to place them among cartoons shows a misunderstanding of the realities in which they were conceived. This means that despite the numerous placards and the endless pictures of the little man, the exhibition feels disjointed and lacking in unity. Not even by including the Banksy prank – a slab of concrete with a drawing of a prehistoric man pushing a shopping trolley, put up in secret in the British Museum – can the exhibit be redeemed, nor the irony diminished of such an anti-establishment piece being celebrated. The slab looks instead like a lion head, a trophy on the wall that stares glassily out of its case.
The exhibition adds insult to injury by putting on show pieces of government propaganda. The remains of a statue made specifically to shame a woman, old fashioned ‘revenge porn’, and a carving of Cleopatra in a compromising sexual position; these constitute not protest, but state-sponsored smears. Their inclusion makes a mockery of the exhibition’s purpose of highlighting the weak attacking the strong throughout history. This is a sniggering mix of serious and obscene, and visitors get what feels like a giggling schoolboy’s desk turned upside-down to expose graffiti carved on the underside. The scarfed and bespectacled public nods and hums.
In some cases, the lack of context is irritating and hamstrings understanding. While nearly any modern visitor will be able to appreciate how the pink ‘pussy hat’ is a charged object, even as it sits, plonked on a wooden mannequin head under lights, the yellow umbrella of the Hong Kong democracy movement may be a less understood symbol to some. To show off items that once stood for so much without explaining them is a pointless gesture. Most people will not be able notice that a character is misspelled in a piece of Chinese calligraphy from the Cultural revolution and even when told will not appreciate its significance. That requires a complex understanding and too many words for a small placard. In other cases, the lack of context is frankly insulting. To include a coin with the pope depicted hanging from some gallows is to forget the Catholics that were killed in England during the Gordon riots. This is a celebration of a popular Protestant anti-Catholic sentiment that should be viewed as a darker part of our history, rather than a cheeky side note.
All in all, the exhibition is boring. Items with their lives and vitality wrung out of them sit empty and without context. You could walk around the bizarrely laid-out room for hours and not really gain any greater understanding of anything. The funny man seems to have forgotten a very basic rule of comedy. Once you have to put a sign underneath a picture explaining that, by putting a red hat on Louis XVI’s head, the author is being funny by suggesting that the king was a revolutionary, the joke is dead.