Tuesday, 25 October 2011

POSTMODERNISM: STYLE AND SUBVERSION @ the Victoria & Albert Museum until the 15thJanuary 2012

We all like to bandy around the word ‘Postmodern’ like it’s anyone’s business, right? Well I do. But how many of us stop and actually question what we really mean by this or at least why do we use that word rather than others? When do we most use it? And to describe what? I think most of you right now are thinking the same as me, that we mostly use that word in an ironic sense with a determinable sarcastic note. For example, I have many people come with me to an exhibition in Dalston and, when they see something wacky, they sarcastically exclaim, scratching their imaginary beard: ‘Oh it’s so Postmodern!’. We all then have a good laugh and move on. Sound familiar? A few days ago I went to the V&A’s exhibition, ‘POSTMODERNISM: STYLE AND SUBVERSION’ (@V_and_A) really to see when this term came to be, what it really meant and how it is important to our lives. Now as I did a degree in English Literature and have studied some contemporary art during my time at MASS MoCA in the States, I had some idea of what ‘Postmodernism’ meant in terms of literature and art but still was wanting a firmer footing in this precarious conceptual minefield.
The show was an interesting one. The first thing one must say is that the show certainly has its limitations. For instance the big claim as being the first major exhibition on Postmodernism worldwide does ignore the fact that this for the most part is a show about Postmodern design, fashion and architecture. It doesn’t take in art and literature into its remit even if that also was subversive. Having said that, it does contextualise these three areas to some degree in relation to film and music. Now that we have renamed this exhibition in our minds as ‘Postmodernism in Design’, we can look at its great triumphs. This exhibition is a wonderfully-curated show detailing a period that many of us lived through and of which were part: the late 1970s, 80s and most of the 90s. Through a multifaceted array of objects and styles of display at different eye levels, this exhibition brings this period to colourful life. We are taken (not that far) back to a time with bright luminous colours, clashing fashion styles, androgynous off-centre hairstyles, garishly stylistic TV and music videos, and over the top typefaces and advertising. What came to my mind most was the scene when Michael J. Fox’s character first walks out into the main town square and then into ‘Café 80s’ in ‘Back to the Future: Part II’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AP-ObLX7lZc ;  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E1P_ZEy6bk&NR=1) and is hit by a bombardment of disjointed occurrences. The famous town hall (yes, the one that gets struck by lightning) is situated right next to an absolutely crazy structure with no attempt to match styles for so-called neat townscaping. It has jutting out edges and facets that block the view of the pristine 1950s town hall, serve no real purpose, and almost purposefully seems to accentuate its poor continuity with its bright blue colouring. Inside the café, Fox is astonished to see people decked out in randomly chosen bright, synthetic plastic-looking clothing though drinking and eating to the music of Michael Jackson’s classic track ‘BAD’. American nostalgia is scattered around the space awkwardly, juxtaposed with haphazard technology. TV monitors career around the room taking people’s orders. Rather than real faces doing the waiting, we have a stylised Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan, irreverent and unlikely. What was described in essence was a Postmodern future rather than a Modern one. This was the overriding image of Postmodernism as portrayed by the V&A.

Whereas Modernist design aimed at inferring modern efficiency, utopian ideals, streamlining, flat colours, the discreet hiding of technology and clean edges (IKEA is probably the biggest example of this in many ways), Postmodernist design, by contrast, pushed forward the jarring juxtaposition of the old and new, or at least conflicting styles. Thus in the late 70s and early 80s, architectural designs were taken forward that took classical motifs and threw them with more modern structures. The finished products look deliberately awkward and fly in the face of idealism and the user-experience. Fashion and music, exemplified by Grace Jones in the exhibition, had outfits that brought together sharp, non-symmetrical, angular dimensions with the elegance of classic dress. Likewise fashion and hairstyles that meshed the classically male and the classically female in look were also the ‘in’ thing. I thought of the Pet Shop Boys and their outrageously over the top videos of the 1980s, The Tube and its ancestor The Word in the 1990s. These all seemed Postmodernist in many ways, dystopian, chaotic and irreverent. In terms of furniture and jewellery, we are shown cabinets, armchairs, bookshelves and necklaces that are cut across in styles – classical design meets garish, plastic-looking, brightly-coloured blockiness. The exhibition took the seminal film ‘Bladerunner’ (1982) by Ridley Scott as the archetypal Postmodernist film: a vision of the future that was far from somewhere we want to live, where identity is up for grabs and we live in darkness everyday. Costumes, music and imagery were displayed in the exhibition as proof of the hybridity of this important film, a piece that refuses to sit comfortably in the categories of sci-fi, film noire or fiction. At one amazing moment in the exhibition, and I do not use that word often, many of the exhibition visitors were standing in a square space looking from one large screen above us to another adjacent to it, all showing 80s music videos. It felt like we were droids, anonymous sheep-like humans staring at our past in a strange future. It was very ‘Bladerunner’ to say the least.

The exhibition was a success. It opened my eyes to Postmodernism in relation to design and in relation to this early period of my life. We had all been part of it and it reminded me that we should always keep our eyes open and realise what is happening around us, never take anything for granted. We may have never come into contact with Postmodernist high fashion or furniture but we certainly saw the outcomes trickle down into music videos and hairstyles. My only complaint about the show is that it became a bit generalist in its approach to the term by the last segment. Postmodernism seemed to blend into the key concepts of the Pop Art movement and, although there were certainly overlaps in ideas, this was a shame. I think it would have been better to stop the show at 1990 and bring in contemporary art’s response to Postmodernism. For example, does Postmodernism in art have less meaning than Conceptualism when it comes to this era? Where were the Fluxus artists and the Minimalists? In literature, where was Salman Rushdie’s Metaphysics and Fabulation, the increase in black humour or dystopian playfulness, or indeed the much touted ‘death of the author’. Experimental music was handled through the consummate American composer, Philip Glass, but altogether a little too loosely. Dance and theatre likewise were meagre inclusions.

I left the show wishing for more on this important couple of decades, though certainly knowing more about what it means to be ‘Postmodern’. I must admit I did feel that this exhibition was an important start in the continuing deciphering of the term. As such it came across as superficial at points, drawing together aspects of the eighties that were in our face at the time and saying it was Postmodernist in retrospect. Having said that, the period was so recent that it is hard to be totally objective about it all. Either way I enjoyed the show immensely and would recommend it highly to any of you. It occurred to me in conversation with my friend afterwards that one might postulate that when you see your next wacky artwork at a small pokey gallery in Dalston and someone raggedly dressed in your group says in that mock-refined tone that it is ‘soooo Postmodern’, that in their pretended posh speak and choice of words, as well as in their choice of place to say it, they are ironically being Postmodern even if the work is not. There’s something for you to get your head round.         

Jana Manuelpillai

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