At the festival of love

Anna Blair
August 25, 2014

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.


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.


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”.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


All by
Anna Blair