Art review: Memory Palace, V&A Museum, London

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The visitor to this sensational new exhibition is greeted with the words: “My fellow Londoners, can’t you see how we are diminished?” 

In the post-apocalyptic world of British author Hari Kunzru’s specially commissioned 10,000 word novella, London has been ravaged by a magnetic storm; all memory, art, writing, and recording has been banned. As one man attempts to remember, alone in his cell, the narrative unfolds.

The museum has commissioned over twenty international artists – ranging from graphic designers to typographers – to create works inspired by Kunzru’s text. The result is exhilarating. As well as crossing artistic boundaries by combining literature with art, the curators have transformed what it means to “read” a book and “see” an exhibition. You walk through the story, which is non-linear but somehow makes sense. This is a daring project for the museum, which has broken visitor records with its current David Bowie exhibition.

Far from whimsical, Kunzru’s story uses familiar sci-fi tropes to make a very political point. His hero recalls: “Once there were great palaces called Hospitals.” In contrast to a dystopian future when the NHS and indeed all medical knowledge has been erased, the idea of basic public services appears miraculous. “It was a time of great wonder,” he writes, referring to the present.

This fragment of text is accompanied by a fabulous sculpture of a “misremembered” ambulance by London-based illustration collective Le Gun. A ghoulish figure brandishes a whip and pulls a cart filled with potions that promise ad-hoc, alchemical healing. One sign reads: “Are you suffering from spiritual growth?” The work points to the morbidly funny aesthetics of the Mexican Day of the Dead, but it is also a warning about what could happen if our free health care isn’t protected.

Elsewhere, Erik Kessels has made a palace out of recycled print advertising. As the co-founder of Dutch communications agency KesselsKramer, this seems like a perverse though intriguing step. The raw material of his own livelihood has been trashed and packed into blocks, and then turned into walls that the viewer can walk inside. Before the disaster, Kunzru wittily writes, “Men and women would chant: ‘I am not a plastic bag.’”

Part satire of contemporary life, this exhibition is much more besides: it is a reminder that the things we take for granted – public services, literacy, museums, free expression – are rooted in dazzling leaps of the imagination and must be defended.

From 18 June – 2 October 2013, V&A, London

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