I am attempting to count how many boyfriends I have had on my hands: five. A nice, solid number: not too many, not too little. And why? Because recently I visited the Southbank Centre’s Museum of Broken Relationships, a part of their Festival of Love. The gallery left me questioning: how do you categorize a boyfriend? In fact, how is it possible to analyse a relationship?
Many artists have posed, reposed and offered an answer to this question. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls gave us sexuality, raw and simple, in the form of Edie Sedgwick. Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With played with the idea of romantic and platonic sleeping partners. Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 tested the interaction of spectacle and audience, performer and voyeur. It seems there is no easy answer.
This problematic definition of relationships is presented, in all its harsh complexities, for the audience who float silently around the Southbank’s museum. The room is filled with objects in glass cases, accompanied by a short description of what it meant to the owner. There are oddities galore: a woollen dildo with three piercings; a handwritten letter on ageing paper and a wedding dress, never worn. There is evidence of a man who never cared for his girlfriend. Another man who disappeared. Another who broke off his potential nuptials the day before they were due.
Through these seemingly simple objects, the museum achieves is a real connection with its visitors. A break-up is something everyone can relate to. The collection charts a variety of different relationships across the globe: the year-long romance of a young couple in Singapore; the two week tryst of another in Hampshire and the couple who divorced after 13 years together in London.
The exhibition tests what a relationship really is – and showcases all the small objects infused with meaning along the way. Indeed, such short, simple descriptions allow one to project their own stories into the collection. Most of them lack specifics such as gender and sexuality, some lack sentence structure – and others are left without any narrative at all. The lack of information is uniting: the relationships could be anyone, the objects could belong to anybody and anywhere in the world – and perhaps this is where the collection’s power lies.
Tucked away under the Queen Elizabeth hall, it would be easy to miss this part of the Southbank’s festival – but it is a piece not to be missed.