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Earlier this month, the Saatchi Gallery announced the focus of its next exhibition: rave culture. Billed as the first major exhibition of its kind, with a keen focus on the Second Summer of Love, Sweet Harmony: Rave | Today arrives at a particularly relevant time. Thirty-odd years on and the Tories are in power again, free parties continue to be held and shut down across the UK, and government clampdowns on rave culture still persist.

With that in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s an abundance of historical and socio-political analysis to be gleaned from the first major exhibition on rave and acid house. However, upon entering the exhibition’s opening galleries, the structure of the show feels unfocused and vague. Text by Dave Swindells in the Second Summer of Love gallery states that the first “raves” were jazz dance parties in early 1950s London. Contemporary photography dresses the rooms but, contrary to the text on display, there’s barely a ballroom or saxophone in sight.

Without prior knowledge of the works, it’s not immediately clear which photographers had created the images on display, or what style of photography it was intended as: editorial, event or documentary. The overall feel is a mix of documentarian and semi-autobiographical approaches – with some photographers focusing on a specific time and place and others sharing snaps of their friends at the rave.

Continue further into the exhibition though and you’ll find highlights. The decades-spanning work of Vinca Peterson for example, which visually documents her travels and the parties that were held along the way. The mix of material from her “personal archive” – a memory box on a wall of photographs, handwritten memories and flyers – will make even the most cynical gallery-goer feel nostalgic. Dominic From Luton also stands out with his attempt to capture the feeling of community that surrounded rave and how it shaped a younger generation that felt isolated in suburban towns. Elsewhere in the exhibition, it’s hard to not derive some joy from the bouncy castle – you can’t jump on it, even with your shoes off – and rotating car mounted on the ceiling.

While there is a display of Matthew Smiths’ photographs, which capture protests in the mid-late 90s, his work isn’t linked to any context as to why rave and its associated politics was considered a threat to the conservative establishment. A polished and glorified version of rave takes centre stage instead, which stands in contrast to the depth and relatability of Peterson’s work. Rather than delve deep into the historical context of rave culture, the rest of the gallery places more emphasis on romantic, sweeping statements and hedonistic tales.

“The Criminal Justice Act is briefly mentioned, but Sweet Harmony fails to acknowledge that it was the Conservatives who passed the bill”

The Criminal Justice Act is briefly mentioned, but Sweet Harmony fails to acknowledge that it was the Conservatives who passed the bill, and it certainly side-steps the Saatchi brothers’ involvement in multiple Tory election campaigns. As you wander through the exhibition’s loose structure, it becomes clear that the movement is being presented through a sanitised filter, with Sweet Harmony neglecting why there was, and still is, a need for escapism during a politically turbulent time.

Equally jarring are the Spotify-branded listening stations further along in the ‘Play’ room. While it’s the kind of corporate sponsorship dance music has become accustomed to these days, a giant like Spotify jumping on the rave bandwagon feels antithetical to the ideas supposedly on show on the gallery’s walls. Similarly, rather than focus on acid house or any other rave-related genre, the playlists pull from the broad spectrum of dance, with techno and modern EDM making just as much of an appearance.

While there are some enjoyable aspects and highlights – much of the photography on display is world-class – Sweet Harmony’s focus on the ‘feel-good’ side of rave ultimately makes the exhibition feel shallow. Perhaps it would have been disingenuous for the Saatchi Gallery to emulate the political atmosphere of a rave given its owner’s role in helping to elect those that shut them down, but for all its idolatry of the Second Summer of Love, the exhibition feels oddly removed from the experience of partying, and desperately lacking in the spirit of the movement it claims to document.

Sweet Harmony Rave | Today runs at the Saatchi Gallery until 12 September