Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990
September 24, 2011 – January 15, 2012
V&A Museum, London
Postmodernism is an ambitious and extensive exhibition. It is the latest in a loose series of exhibitions of major art movements, such as art nouveau and art deco, to be held at the V&A Museum. Like postmodernism itself, the exhibition is a complex and sometimes perhaps, a confusing experience. As an introduction, visitors read: ‘… of all the movements in art and design history, postmodernism is perhaps the most controversial’ and ‘with its unstable mix of theatrical and theoretical, the movement defies definition.’ This elusive and inconsistent subject is what the exhibition aims to examine.
The exhibition traces the evolution of postmodernist practice over a period of twenty years. It begins with the growth of disillusionment with modernism; demonstrates the profusion of ideas that were produced and follows through to its connection with commercialism and what is considered its inevitable decline. The transition from marginal to mainstream is shown through architecture, design, fashion, video, dance, graphic design, fine art and craft.
In black-painted rooms with bright-coloured neon or florescent acrylic signs, the exhibition opens with two images of destruction. In Alessandro Mendini’s Destruction of Lassù Chair (1974) a chair of his own modernist design is set alight in an Italian quarry. The other is an image of the modernist Pruitt Igoe Housing Project in St Louis being dynamited in 1972, sixteen years after its completion, which is often presented as an indication that the utopian dream of architecture bringing about social cohesion had failed. These events marked a transition to a time where rules, answers and agreed hierarchies, if there were to be any, had to be reconsidered.
The exhibition provides a good representation of postmodernism’s main ingredients - the messy, high-voltage energy; the freedom to mix high and ‘low’ culture; the upheaval of established aesthetics; the accommodation of different viewpoints; the correlation of human and machine; the overstepping of discipline boundaries; the use of bricolage; notions of reproduction, copying and appropriation and a sensibility of style over substance and an increasing delight in superficiality. Overall, it is the fusion of the dynamic forces of destruction and creation that the exhibition makes explicit. Some of the pieces still look good, while others look thin and insubstantial.
In the initial section, changing ideas in architecture are illustrated by photographs and drawings of work by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Charles Jencks and Aldo Rossi, with much use of broken pediments and ziggurat shapes. As the period of time between 1970 and 1990 was free from the widespread use of computers, the hand drawn and coloured architectural drawings provide an element of nostalgia and show just how strongly the integration of computer processes have affected our expectations. Aldo Rossi’s gouache and ink drawing of San Cataldo’s cemetery appears more like a medieval drawing than one created just forty years ago.
Of the three small groups of jewelry shown, the first is a selection of Bernard Schobinger’s work: Shards from Moritzplatz, Berlin (1983-4) made up of antique crystal beads combined with broken television screens and a dangerously sharp looking piece of broken glass from a Cola-Cola bottle; Wahnsinn Macht Frei (Madness Sets You Free) (1980) a scratchily etched gold brooch and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1987) which combines several casually cut circles of thin metal tied together with a broken part of a ceramic plate showing a tranquil Japanese scene. All great pieces but rather badly lit and set quite low so you have to stoop to see them. They are displayed beside Ron Arad’s concrete stereo, Bill Woodrow’s Twin Tub with Guitar, Danny Lane’s glass chair and shown under the loop of the apocalyptical scene in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner in which Los Angeles bursts into flames.
Two examples of fashion in this section are a Vivienne Westwood outfit from her Punkature collection of 1982, which has layers of loosely structured garments with an image from Blade Runner printed on the skirt and Rei Kawakuba’s Post-Holocaust fashion, also from 1982, which is a torn and distressed black outfit, displayed on a black and hunched mannequin leaning on stick. The mannequin assumes the same pose as a model in a magazine image from the time. However, this version produces quite a different atmosphere from when the garment was worn on a real young woman, which was an exhilarating combination of the abject and the glamorous. All these works construct something positive from urban decay and detritus and they assimilate a language of the street and its unaccustomed materials for fashion, furniture and jewelry. They indicate a measure of the personal triumphing over inhospitable forces of the urban environment. I found this room was the most coherent section of the exhibition as it presented a range of work from different areas that corresponded and that gave a strong feeling that a new view of the city was emerging.
The exciting process of challenging the existing order of things, questioning values and blurring boundaries certainly characterized the practice of jewelry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I started my career in the climate of overturning traditions, when jewelry designers were questioning the adherence to conservative forms, the use of precious materials and a predominance of decoration over comment. There was space for something much more exciting and relevant and a rush of energy produced work that communicated a different set of values. The work in this section resonates with the open ended and experimental approach that pervaded the contemporary jewelry world at that time.
In the next section of the exhibition a pair of pots presented together, one by Alison Britton and the other by Betty Woodman, are outnumbered by an extensive selection of Memphis and Studio Alchymia furniture and household objects. Although all these pieces share similar concerns in so far as they re-evaluate traditional forms, functions and surface decoration, the intentions and frameworks within which the makers worked are very different. It is an awkward mix but perhaps in accordance with the incongruity of postmodernism itself. The small selection of design drawings from Memphis is superb, placing the designs in a realm of possibility that suited the ideas perfectly.
The exhibition continues with a section that explores the hybridization of ideas which came about as artists and designers looked to other forms of communication, such as advertising, publishing and the use of previous works of art. Examples are Cindy Sherman’s film stills, ID Magazine and Peter Saville’s record covers. The second group of jewelry in the exhibition is part of a display dealing with designers who worked outside their first discipline. With pieces from 1982 to 1987, the radical Memphis designers Michele de Lucchi, Mario Zanini and Ettore Sottsass entered into the territory of luxury jewelry with designs for Cleto Munari. The combination of the colours of precious materials such as lapis, agate, onyx and coral together with the ad hoc quality of combining materials and forms is strong, but these pieces do not add much to the language of contemporary jewelry. They are more a commodification of their previous, edgier designs.
The third display of jewelry is in a small section titled ‘Craft.’ The wall text suggests that it might be thought that craft, standing for authenticity and direct, deep knowledge and connection with materials, isn’t sympathetic with notions of postmodernism, but the choice of three important neckpieces by Gijs Bakker, Otto Kunzli and Robert Smit share a showcase and work well together. Bakker’s neckpiece Phorzheim 1780 (1985) embodies many of the notions of postmodernism. It is an image of an existing necklace and in quoting it, Bakker re-presents and re-evaluates old values to do with material wealth. There is a translation from precious to non-precious; from historical to contemporary; from a unique piece to one, which could be reproduced; from real to replica; from handmade to machine processed. Kunzli’s Fragment Neckpiece (1986) in which part of a gold-leafed picture frame hangs on a steel cable, also harks back to a past where precious frames enhanced the considered value of precious paintings. By equating the tradition of the use of gold for jewelry and the gold surfaces on elaborate picture frames, he is widening the hitherto narrow references that jewelry had previously been limited by. Smit demonstrates in Square (1990) a keen understanding of the properties of gold and treating it is as though it were any other material shows a healthy disregard for any special treatment its reputation might demand.
The pervading sounds of the short, looped video clips were heard in most of the spaces, in particular the mesmeric encoded voice of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman – ‘So hold me Mom, in your long arms’ – and Klaus Nomi singing ‘Lightning is striking again and again and again and again.’
One of the last pieces in the exhibition, Ai Wei Wei’s audacious Han Dynasty Vase with Coca-Cola Logo (1994) for me summed up the whole postmodernist movement. The ancient and extremely valuable vase is painted over with the Coca-Cola logo in pink. Here is the conflict of historical and contemporary values, the clash of the sacrosanct and the superficial, the collision of cultures together with an audacious wit. The label explains that in the process of destroying the ancient treasure, its value has increased greatly.