Victoria & Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom
From: 24 September 2011
Until: 15 January 2012
Postmodernism - Style and Subversion 1970-1990
10 am until 5.45 pm
'Do we still live in a Postmodern era?' So asks the concluding wall text in Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990, the V&A’s hugely enjoyable survey of the architecture, design, fashion, pop music and art of the moment after Modernism. This question is echoed in the show’s final exhibit, the New York artist Robert Longo’s video for New Order’s 1986 single Bizarre Love Triangle. Here, over rapid-fire footage of bustling crowds, bursting fireworks, and stock brokers floating through cloudless Manhattan skies, lead singer Bernard Sumner wonders ‘why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?’ in his trademark flat, affectless tone.
While this query is emblematic of Postmodernism’s split from what we might not-quite-satisfactorily identify as Modernist certainties (among them a belief in progress, and in the essential indivisibility of the self), it is also one that any visitor to the show born before, say, the early 1980s might raise when confronted with a vitrine containing a model of Terry Farrell’s giant egg cup-adorned TVAM building (1983), a copy of the Neville Brody-designed style mag The Face, or the oversized suit worn by Talking Heads’ David Byrne on the 1984 Stop Making Sense Tour. This used to be the stuff that surrounded us. To encounter it en masse in a museum provokes, if not shock exactly, then the uneasy feeling that what was once the present has become the past without our quite noticing it.
In its positioning of Postmodernist buildings, furniture and artworks as historical artifacts, the V&A exhibition mirrors the concerns of several contemporary British artists, among them Pablo Bronstein, who has made Piranesi-like ink drawings that reference buildings by Pomo architects Michael Graves and Léon Krier, and Matthew Darbyshire, who has reworked designers Alessandro Mendini and Kean Etro’s corporate logo-spattered ‘brand suits’, playfully replacing their very 1980s Swatch and Domus decals with those of noughties fashion favourites Ralph Lauren and George at Asda. Most telling, though, is perhaps Simon Martin’s film Carlton (2006). Over footage of Postmodern designer and Memphis Group founder Ettore Sottsass’s eponymous shelving unit, a voiceover states that ‘Nobody knows exactly when “today” actually happened. Maybe “today” occurred with the closure of Andy Warhol’s Factory, or with the growth in the secondary market for avant-garde furniture’. One of the key displays in the V&A exhibition is Sotsass’s 1981 Casablanca cabinet, a close cousin of the Carlton unit that calls to mind both a totem pole and the laminated surfaces of a ‘50s era Milanese coffee bar. Looking at it in the V&A, its hard not to hear the voiceover from Martin’s film echo in our ears. If we do still ‘live in a postmodern era’, it is not one that is defined by high-end, intellectually playful Italian interior design, but something closer to the cultural mash-up of Nandos, the Portuguese/Mozambican-themed chain chicken restaurant weirdly beloved of the UK Grime scene.
Just as there were multiple Modernisms, there were - and are - multiple Postmodernisms. The V&A exhibition’s focus on the work of seminal figures such as architect Charles Jencks, fashion designer Rei Kawakubo, and performance artist Leigh Bowery makes for undeniably fantastic viewing, but this all-thriller-no-filler approach means that it cannot really capture how these figures’ radical aesthetics entered the vernacular, or the weird afterlife of the ‘movement’ once its cultural energy ran out.
It’s possible to imagine an alternate version of the V&A show, which ends not with Bizarre Love Triangle, but with the video for British boy band Bros’ 1988 single Drop The Boy, which shamelessly steals Robert Longo’s motif of bodies flying through frictionless city skies. Here, however, Manhattan is replaced by Canary Wharf, and the anonymous stockbrokers by identical twins Matt and Luke Goss, whose Aryan good looks recall a prettified version of Rutger Hauer’s Replicant in Ridley Scott’s pomo movie par excellence Blade Runner (1982), and whose mixing and matching of formal and sports wear is a watered-down, wholly suburban take on ‘80s Face stylist Ray Petri’s seminal ‘Buffalo’ look. This is zombie Postmodernism, shuffling lifelessly through the motions. ‘Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?’ The answer, it seems, is that consumer capitalism eventually drains the lifeblood out of every cultural moment. As the V&A show demonstrates, Postmodernism’s most vital artifacts have now ascended to the heaven of the museum. Others, like the Drop the Boy video, are fated to the hell of the thrift store or car boot sale, or the endless purgatory of YouTube.