Postmodernism: style and subversion 1970-1990
Review of the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, September 2011 - January 2012
This exhibition makes an engaging counterpoint to our many discussions of postmodernism as a philosophy. The V&A takes us on a visual journey through two decades of its expression in architecture, clothing, and industrial and graphic design. The results of such determined playfulness and clear-eyed nihilism are by turns smart, funny, intriguing, odd and depressing.
The curators emphasise the ‘post’ in postmodernism, representing it as a reaction against modernism. However, the attitudes and values that characterise postmodernism can also be understood as the flip-side to modernism, and have been in evidence for as long as modernism, in for instance Dada, Surrealism and the Theatre of the Absurd. The spirit of Duchamp hovers over much of the work, and some of the postmodern ‘bricolage’ – or cut-and-paste objects – are very similar to the Dadaist constructions of Schwitters and Höch.
What changed in the 1970s and 1980s was that the values of postmodernism gradually came centre-stage. The exhibition charts the path of postmodern design from a serious-minded endeavour of a few in 1970 to the cultural mainsteam of the 1980s, when it was overwhelmed with the depressingly predictable concerns of wealth and status.
Postmodernism’s architecture was, by necessity, more seriously purposeful than its applied arts: few clients will pay for genuinely nihilistic buildings. So playfulness and stylistic promiscuity are to the fore in the work of Philip Johnson and Robert Venturi. The series of Best Products department stores designed by James Wise and the SITE group are delightfully creative and amusing. The exhibition also reminds us what a welcome relief postmodern architecture was in the 1970s, a redemptive rejection of the inhumanity of late modern and brutalist architecture.
The clothing, furniture and domestic objects depend on sampling and stylistic borrowing. While some objects are merely quirky, others are powerfully challenging, such as the bed designed by Masanori Umeda in the form of a boxing ring. Studio Alchymia in Milan was the first design group to embrace postmodernism, aiming to occupy ‘a state of waste, of disciplinary, dimensional and conceptual indifference.’ Their furniture, in which each element is designed by a different person, is genuinely unsettling.
As Christians we have no brief to defend modernism, and postmodernism was a step forward in recognising the limitations of human power to command and control, and the impossibility of taking a neutral position in your views on life. However, its two options for living are equally disspiriting.
On the one hand it offers the despair that is evidenced in wilful nonsense. As the curators say, postmodernism was characterised by a multiplication of choices but at the same time by a ‘sense of loss, even of destructiveness’. How do you choose, when you don’t know what you believe in, and therefore don’t know what you want?
On the other hand it offered itself up to commercialism, marked here by Andy Warhol’s large silk-screen of the Dollar Sign, accompanied by a range of pop videos and other memorabilia. I found the trend from philosophically committed nihilism to hedonistic consumerism particularly disspiriting. And the laconic, self-conscious knowingness becomes wearisome: ‘We know that Las Vegas is all superficiality, and we know that our apparent celebration of Las Vegas is equally superficial … and we who know this are de facto a slightly superior in-crowd.’
Not everyone was sucked into the glibness of the 1980s. The exhibition gives prominence to Jenny Holzer’s 1985 work that was projected on a bill-board in New York’s Times Square and offered a prayer to who-knows-whom: ‘Protect me from what I want.’ And Frank Schreiner’s Consumer’s Rest (1990) is an uncomfortable chair designed apparently from a supermarket trolley.
Frank Schreiner: Consumer's rest chair (1990) Copyright Frank Schreiner for Stiletto Studios
The exhibition offers much to enjoy and to reflect on. But in all the borrowing and posing there is a deep lack of conviction that is very sad.
This review was first published in Third Way (December 2011)