A Cultural History of Love: Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love

Last week I visited the Festival of Love on London’s South Bank. The festival was staged by the Southbank Centre, which includes the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery. This cultural hub often hosts long running events, including the Festival of Neighbourhood last summer.

The Festival of Love ran throughout this summer and finished with the Big Wedding Weekend on the 31st August. It celebrated the passing of the Equal Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act through exhibitions, events, weddings and art. Southbank Centre explained that,

“All of us hold feelings for others, but these feelings differ according to the people and the circumstance. In the English language there is only one word to describe all of them: LOVE.”

While we have one word the Ancient Greeks had around 30, and so the Festival of Love chose seven of these “most powerful words to guide us towards a greater understanding of the emotion which makes the world go round.”

These seven kinds of love were: Philautia (self respect), Agape (the love of humanity), Ludus (flirting, playful affection), Eros (romantic and erotic love), Storge (family love), Pragma (love which endures) and Philia (shared experience). There are more details on all of these at the Southbank Centre website here (though I must add, nothing on “Greek love”, a phrase often used to mean homoeroticism or a veiled description of pederasty).

My favourite part of the Festival was the Heartbreak Hotel section, which housed the I Think I Love You Lounge, where visitors could dress up as their teen idols (including Amy Winehouse, kd lang, Adam Ant and of course, David Bowie), an exhibition of letters to Jackie Magazine’s agony aunts, The Museum of Broken Relationships and a well-placed, well-named bar called The Department of Good Cheer. Dressing up as Bowie aside, I particularly enjoyed this section because it took a completely different spin than most exhibitions about love (in its many forms).

The letters to Jackie from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s showed how confusing love can be, especially to a teenager. The pop idol lounge showed how obsessive love can be. Finally, the Museum of Broken Relationships showed how tough love can be. The result was a snippet cultural history of love over the past 50 or so years, touching on sexuality, confusion, romance and heartbreak. Some of the Jackie letters are at once funny and sad. They are symbolic of a time and place so different to our own, which as the interpretation panel points out, was well before a Google search could return answers to young teenage girls. One letter explains that “No, love bites can’t cause cancer”, another provides the address of a book shop so that the reader can order a Facts of Life book. One letter in particular that caught my eye, written in 1971, lambasted a reader for asking whether she should go on the pill even though she was single. ‘Cathy and Claire’ told her,

“It is absolutely pointless just to decide that you’ll go on the Pill. If you had a special boyfriend we’d understand. But you just want to go on the Pill on the off-chance. Don’t be so foolish.”

The selection of letters and the displays of Jackie covers framed on the walls give a real insight into the attitudes of young women and teenagers during these decades, and are an invaluable historical source as well as a form of entertainment and amusement.

The Museum of Broken Relationships perhaps surprisingly, also provides amusement. It also wears its heart on its sleeve, and is as intense and emotional as one would expect. The collection of objects, conceptualised by artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, has grown from a travelling collection, which has toured internationally. It “offers the chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation”, by collecting donations from those who have some tangible leftover of a broken relationship.

"I fell in love with Adam in the beginning when he was a gentleman and a scholar..."

Moroccan Vase, Dec 2008-Dec 2010.”I fell in love with Adam in the beginning when he was a gentleman and a scholar…”

The range of objects is incredible, from DVDs to pots, tablecloths, books, a handmade wedding dress (never worn), letters, handcuffs, a ‘spectrum of a star’ and dreadlocks. Each object is accompanied by a note from the person who donated it, which gives it life, context and emotion. Some explain the now broken relationship from beginning to end, some are only one line long, one says simply “Átame…” (the meaning of which I assume is similar to the Almodóvar film of the same name, translated to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in English).

Each object tells its own history and the history of the people involved, but it also contributes to a much wider social and cultural history. The notes accompanying the objects show different cultural attitudes to love as well as different material cultures. Significantly, as the Festival is celebrating the Same-Sex Couples Act, the objects show different attitudes to sexuality. With the majority of objects, however, their written explanations give little hint to the genders of the couple involved.

As the interpretation panel notes, the Museum of Broken Relationships “challenges our notions of heritage”. It blurs the lines between art, heritage, contemporary collecting and public history. It’s innovative in both its content and its concept, much like the Festival of Love as a whole.

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