2013 is the Qatar/UK Year of Culture – who knew? As far as most people in the UK are concerned, Qatar is the place at the end of some very dodgy London property deals; and the Qataris are those people determined to prove that the 2022 World Cup can be played in temperatures hot enough to incinerate the players where they stand. Now we have a chance to learn more.
Qatar is the Little Country That Could. Poking out into the middle of the Persian Gulf, it sits atop a huge bubble of natural gas, some of the revenues from which it has devoted to good works and cultural enterprises at home, including no fewer than 7 national museums. Quite who will visit any of them remains to be seen, but Qatar's money means it can punch way above its weight. That old pop-tart, Damien Hirst, has a show opening out there; and now we, at the V&A, have a restringing of the only previous Qatar exhibition to garner international notice: Pearls.
Pearl-fishing – hazardous and arduous as it is (maybe 2,000 oysters have to be opened to find one good pearl) has been going on in the Persian Gulf for almost 3,000 years; and until someone discovered that bubble of gas, was just about Qatar's only industry. This exhibition is full of absorbing little factoids such as that – you really will come out feeling that you know everything about pearls you could possibly need. No, they are not formed around grains of sand, but around parasites, entering into the pearl-shell's mantle (the frilly bit round the edge – the show even has one example of a misshapen pearl that formed around an actual fish). The colour of a natural pearl comes from the colour of the nacre, the iridescent lining inside the pearl's shell. Julius Caesar thought our British freshwater pearls were puny. Pearls have been seen as symbols of fertility, unsurprisingly, and rather charmingly, the immaculate conception. The Empress Eugenie (1826–1920) began the fashion for wearing ropes of pearls, Chanel-style; while Margherita of Savoy (1851–1926) owned 33 different pearl necklaces, frequently wearing them all together, and still looked like Simon Russell Beale. But will this show truly take its visitors' breath away, as it did out in Doha?
To be honest, probably not. It isn't helped by some very dull stencilled branding, but never mind that, you sweep in, and there are some glittering display cases of exhibits from Qatar itself, lined with scarlet, and some rather beautiful x-ray photographs of shells by Boo Beaumont, and then you go into the main body of the show – and it's all dark grey. Bits of pearl jewellery displayed in what seems to be the world's biggest collection of old Victorian safes. You have to bend. You have to peer. Any small children will be enraged. And the spaces are too small; the corners are too tight; and why the dark grey? When the pearls themselves come in every colour of the rainbow (as witness the corner devoted to South Sea pearls – the only point where the show does elicit proper gasps), what's with the grey? What happened to the scarlet?
True, there are some fabulous historical jewels here, if you can mentally extract them from a show that makes them look so – well, lustreless. The pearl earring Charles I wore at his execution (bend, peer); The Queen's Dagmar necklace; Marilyn Monroe's necklace; Elizabeth Taylor's pearls; five exquisite tiaras, including one Raine Spencer flogged off to Qatar – all worth seeing. The account of the creation of the Japanese artificial pearl industry is also fascinating, even if the film of the way these pearls are made has one praying oysters truly do have no sense of what's being done to them; and even if its end product – 12,000 perfectly matched pearls, strung into what is basically a football scarf – has to be the most pointless, vulgar bit of kitsch I have ever seen. At the back of the show are 6 buckets of cheap, substandard, mass-produced Chinese freshwater pearls. The Chinese have undoubtedly been cast as the villains here. Then you exit through the gift shop, and what's the first thing you see? Ropes and ropes of cheap Chinese freshwater pearls, dyed every colour of the rainbow.
So I won't say don't go to this show, because if you do, you will see (if you aren't a small child, or in a wheelchair) some – some – very lovely objects, and you will also be in the most pertinent place in the UK to contemplate the relationship between art, culture, and cash. But I will say, V&A, you look embarrassed by this show, you've missed a chance to create a blockbuster – and you really, really need to get yourself a decent exhibition space.