Love that doesn’t last still has value

There will be a few novelists, artists and songwriters around who will be tempted to steal the idea behind a new exhibition which has just arrived in London.

The Museum of Broken Relationships takes up residence this month at the Tristan Bates Theatre in Covent Garden. Based in Croatia, the show has become something of a global phenomenon since it was established eight years ago by Olinka Vištica and Dra?en Grubišic after their own relationship had ended.

A romance, its life and death, represented and defined by physical objects: what a perfect framework the idea provides for a piece of fiction or art. The list structure is fashionable right now. There was an American novel based, lot by lot, on an auction catalogue. Before that, Tracey Emin had established her career with an installation called “Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963 -1995”.

The material in the Museum of Broken Relationships sounds promising, too, ranging from the trivial (a nasal spray) to the portentous (an essay comparing the relationship to Serbia’s position in the world), from the bizarre (a page of brain-scan photographs) to the impressive (a grand piano, marking “a tempestuous and short-lived affair punctuated by brief bursts of high living and champagne and 5-star hotels”).

Photographs, notes, presents, compilation tapes: what better way to explore a romance than through the detritus it leaves behind? Yet when one reads the explanatory notes of those who have contributed to the museum, a sad truth emerges: it is the break-up rather than what came before it which is being remembered, and more often than not in a spirit of bitterness.

A set of keys has been donated because they “no longer bear any emotional significance to me, since my ex turned out to be a calculating bastard”. A teddy with “I love you” on its chest is accompanied by a note reading, “I love you. WHAT A LIE! DAMN LIES, DAMN LIES! Yes, it’s like that when you are young, naïve and in love and you don’t realise your boyfriend started dating you because he wanted to take you to bed.”

Something odd seems to happen to people when they split up. They forget their own responsibility for what they contributed not only to the relationship, but also to its end. If he was a calculating bastard, she had chosen to be with him.

Besides, not every broken relationship is a failure. The connection between how long a love lasts and whether it can be deemed a success is a miserable hangover from the days when divorce was seen as a matter of shame. It is unimaginative, the idea that, to be worthwhile, a relationship should endure.

Some good things do not last. Their short, intense lifespan might be a matter of days, or even a night. They may end up broken, but they are only failures in the eyes of dreary puritans. Often they were, while they lasted, small triumphs of romantic life.

There is also a problem with the objects themselves. When someone close to you dies, then it is good to have around you a few of the things which made them happy, and which remind you of them. The same is not true when it is love that has died. Shared objects are either painful to look at or simply meaningless. In fact, what survives a broken relationship is precisely what cannot be put on a shelf or in a drawer: a smile, a remark, a way of talking, singing or making love.

The two people behind The Museum of Broken Relationships have, in their own way, proved the point. After they split up, Vištica and Grubišic decided that they would not, as is traditional, treat their relationship as if it were an illness from which they needed to recover.

They celebrated what was good about it in a show and, more importantly, they remained friends.

Independent, Tuesday, 16 August 2011