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Playing with Postmodernism

Postmodernism at the V&A

To write the art historical narrative of Postmodernism is an impossible task. As a subject, it squirms and struggles as it falls under the curatorial cosh. As a body of work, its organs and limbs detach and crawl off in other directions as you attempt to pin it down. Yet equally, it was a thing of such self-awareness that it had already written its own history. The movement produced its own record through books and exhibitions, including Learning From Las Vegas, Delirious New York, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, The Presence of the Past and so on. This self-documenting, self-historicising tendency means that much of Postmodernism is not only a proposal but also something that has its own built-in critique.

By its very nature, much Postmodern work is already aware of its own reception, its own position and its own relationship to the world. The effect of this self-conscious approach is the generation of ambiguity, doubt and resistance to the frameworks within which it exists − of design,
of objects, of commodification and of museums. Yet here we are, inevitably, at the V&A, where Postmodernism itself is now subject to the very forces that it sought to resist.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 opens with endings. An enormous billboard featuring the St Louis housing project Pruitt-Igoe being blown up in 1972 is emblazoned with Charles Jencks’s gambit from the Language of Post-Modern Architecture: ‘Death of Modernism’. Next to this is more destruction: photographs of Andrea Branzi’s self-immolating chair. These two images of destruction mark on one side the death of Modernism’s idea of progress and belief in shaping a better world; and on the other, the designer-as-radical-artist using design as a site to stage resistance. In these public and private deaths, we see the Postmodern condition: the inability of design to shape the world and the impossibility of being a designer in a world where design is simply a commodity. It’s the struggle against these truths that we see echoed through the show.

The exhibition then shifts to art-historical mode. We feel the curatorial hand sequencing and arranging projects into a cohesive narrative. Starting with an alcove dedicated to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s exploration of the Las Vegas strip, the exhibition moves on to consider their projects where high and low, historical and contemporary culture intersect. From here, a sequence of framed drawings by Aldo Rossi, James Stirling and Ricardo Bofill Levi, and a model of Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia show variations of historical architectural languages deployed in, on and around forms of modernity.

Seen together, the dissonance and juxtaposition of these apparent opposites is held together within the traditional architectural techniques of elevational composition. That is to say, their curation suggests a mode of Postmodernism where disparate references are resolved into a totality. Having set this sequence up, we are then confronted by Giulio Paolini’s L’altra Figura, deployed to express the problem of history. Identical classical busts stare at a third one shattered on the floor. We see history mourning the loss of history.

We then cut back on a diagonal, quoted here in the exhibition design as a Postmodern spatial motif and used here as a curatorial device where going backwards is a means of going forwards. This zagging alley returns us to the exhibition’s opening motif of ruination, where history and reference are deployed as a Surrealist tactic. Rome Interrupted is on one wall; Delirious New York is on the other. Madelon Vriesendorp’s paintings are accompanied by her animation Flagrant Délit, where the Statue of Liberty sets fire to herself before giving birth to the Hindenburg and segues from cartoon to documentary footage of progressive technology in flames. These surreal or metaphorical ruins continue with Arata Isozaki’s drawing of the Tsukuba Center Building in a state of atrophy.

We see this too in the life-size replicas of Hans Hollein’s columns from the Presence of the Past exhibition at the 1980 Venice Biennale, although they frame a vista of post-industrial dilapidation. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner plays at cinema-scope scale over furniture made from industrial detritus: Tom Dixon’s welded mutants, Danny Lane’s fractured glass, Ron Arad’s wasteland-concrete record player. Here, and with Hiroshima Chic, bag lady Vivienne Westwood, SITE’s ruined Big Box retail, NATO’s wobbly collapse of even the architectural drawing itself and Derek Jarman’s post-punk Jubilee, the historical ruin has given way to the ruins of the contemporary. Everything seems broken, smashed up and collapsed into piles of post-cultural stuff.

Not only is history now impossible, but so too is the present. Here, Postmodernism, it seems, finds utopia not only inconceivable, but also that its only mode of proposition is through dystopia.

At this point, the curatorial narrative itself begins to break apart. A room dedicated to Italian New Wave Design acts as an exhibition within an exhibition. Then we find ourselves in a populist showpiece where scaffold, chain-link and Plexiglass scenographically re-stage something like the Top of the Pops studio. The academic rigour of the previous sections slips into the populism of Boy George, Grace Jones, Blade Runner costumes, multiscreen videos of Devo and slow-motion Talking Heads. Looking at Las Vegas through the Nolli Plan of Rome feels like a distant memory.

Yet still a sense of melancholia pervades. Despite the decadence and posturing, something here appears to suggest that the only thing to do when everything is lost is to exaggerate oneself to an extreme, as though your sense of self could only be derived from external images, as though even being human might be impossible.

Sadder still is a large projection of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, where her voice is vocoded into a robotic wail. We have come a long way from the exhibition’s big bang opening, where the joy of destruction and collapse appeared to offer delirious and joyful freedom. Increasingly, too, we are a long way from canonical, architectural Postmodernism. We are now in a swirl where music, video, choreography, clothes and things are interchangeable.

As a sequence of spaces, the show has a kind of terrible claustrophobia. It sets its exhibits within a blackness only punctured by sharp neons and streaks of fluorescent live-edge acrylic. If this sombre background intends to recede from objects of extreme presence, it also swamps them, and us, with an overbearing melancholy. Perhaps this mood is a means of understanding whatever phenomenon Postmodernism
might actually be.

Its reputation as a distanced, ironic and amoral handmaiden of the market is somewhat undone. Instead, we see these multiple strands of Postmodern design as the dying breath of a design history stretching back through the last century, through Modernism all the way to the Arts and Crafts movement, the struggle of design to shape, contribute to, comment on and resist the world it finds itself in. Against what Jameson calls ‘the logic of late capitalism’, designers set their morality and their desire for truth. We see here how design was deployed by capital but also how it resisted and critiqued capital.

The work it produced was perverse, sometimes ugly, occasionally beautiful, precisely because of the perverse, ugly occasionally beautiful nature of the societies that it was produced within. It wanted to tell us this, or even to warn us. Postmodernism is the last thrash of a design tradition that wanted the world to change, whose ideas were social and political as much as material or formal, the last gasp before design became subsumed by the service economy.

Shooting Postmodernism, as Philip Johnson and Mark Wigley explicitly set out to do through the Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), for being the messenger as though it were the cause of neo-liberalism and global capital was, of course, a tragic and premature end. Postmodernism’s ambiguous nature allowed it to be cast as a collaborator rather than a double agent. But yet killing it, and promoting other design approaches in its place, only served to hasten the victory of the market.

Approaching the end of the show, we can feel the gears of the giant art historical machine jam, its cogs spinning wildly as its subject splinters a thousand ways. In a strange angular white room with a fake suspended ceiling like a fragment of generic office space, objects of our own era form the contemporary ghost of Postmodernism. Here is Mendeni again with a logo-splattered suit, a Ghanaian artefact and Ai Weiwei’s primitive ceramic Coca-Cola vessel. ‘We are all Postmodern’, these objects tell us, echoing Terry Farrell’s aphorism.

At last, the exhibition feels like it wants to step down from its academic perch and whisper its fears into our ear. ‘Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday,’ sings New Order’s Bernard Sumner in the closing room where a video of Bizarre Love Triangle plays on a loop. And with this, the whole history − not only of architecture and design, but of the V&A itself − is brought to a close. The show ends this museum’s cycle of exhibitions documenting the rise of modernity from the Arts and Crafts Movement, through to Modernism, Surrealism and Cold War Modern, all the way to this point where the mechanisms of the art historical − the very foundation of the museum − disappear into itself.

Bizarre Love Triangle provides the tragic epitaph to this century of belief in design’s potential to change the world. As we are ushered into the gift shop to buy Jencks wrapping paper, we hear Sumner’s words echoing ‘I get down on my knees and pray’ as its final lament.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Where: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

When: Until 15 January 2012

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