Each year since 1977 International Museums Day (18 May) has celebrated and explored an aspect of Museum work. The multiple connections inherent in these figures make them ideal ambassadors for this year’s theme – ‘Museum collections make connections!
This group of porcelain ‘souvenirs’, re-purposed by Melbourne artist Penny Byrne from kitsch sentimental figurines, generically represent the intangible connectivity of Facebook, and the ability of social media to empower populations sufficiently enough to topple governments. More specifically these figures also connect us across the world to the political turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring’ events of 2011.
Long after Facebook is replaced by other connective media, curators of the future will be able to display these seemingly prosaic figures to discuss this profound early 21st Century phenomenon, used (in 2013) by 1.230 billion people, and consider Facebook’s impact on the ‘historic world’ of circa 2015.
Social media has had a massive impact on the ways people conduct their private and business lives. The ultimate example of social media’s power however is the use of Facebook to achieve political aims, the widespread success of which has led to massive and lasting change in the world. These four ceramic figures each titled ‘Souvenir [of] Tahrir Square’ are able to document this momentous but intangible phenomenon. The figures, three male and one female, are named after Tahrir Square in Cairo which was central to the Egyptian democracy protests throughout 2011. The figures, far from their sentimental origins as decorative mantelpiece objects, have been dramatically transformed by Byrne to become politicised statements celebrating free speech. The alteration from diffident decoration to political memento is grating, even shocking, and greatly amplifies the new message of the ‘souvenirs’.
While Byrne painted the figures in the colours of the Egyptian flag and named them in recognition of Egypt’s key part in the events of the ‘Arab spring’, it is the jarring Facebook emblem added to their musical instruments which focuses the viewer’s attention. The corporate F strategically placed across the strings of each figure’s instrument leaves no doubt as to social media’s pivotal role in connectivity and dissent. Beyond the specificity of Tahrir Square, the reference to social media and Facebook specifically make the figures relevant to any discussion of social media communication and its crucial role in many world events.
Written by Paul Donnelly, Actg Principal Curator, Design & Society