According to Charles Jencks modernism died at 3.30pm on March 15, 1972, when a failed, crime-riddled housing project in Missouri was dynamited. An act that on the one hand concluded the failed project of modernism’s social aspirations, and on the other hand opened up a vacuum of design and ideology that we have come to call PoMo. So starts the tale of how design pondered what to do after modernism. The new show at the V&A tells the early story of postmodernism beautifully, as it develops from Robert Venturi’s Las Vegas through Jim Sterling to Rem Koolhaas and Michael Graves. What very quickly becomes obvious however, is that Post modernism is not one single strategy, but a variety of different attitudes that drove the art of the 1980s and ‘90s - the building and design object becomes sign, commodity, historical reference, platonic shape and primary colour all in one moment.
Spread a little too thinly this ambitious exhibition hopes to cover twenty years of art, architecture, design, fashion and music in a single sketch. In lieu of an explanation of the difficult and contradictory social and political conditions of post-modernism, and the attempts to overcome an art historical impasse, one is confronted with a carnival of the brash, tasteless and frankly mannerist artifacts. Fluorescent lights buzz, TVs flicker and objects are picked out of the darkened room like a scene from Blade Runner (or to be less kind, like an early 2000s laser quest). The contemporary taste for revisiting new wave styles is clear but there is little to explain how the varied anxieties of the period permitted the development of this style. Chief mischief-maker amongst the new wave designers is Ettore Sottsass, the man responsible for some of the most iconic post-modern furniture designs (you’ll recognise the bizarre primary colour shelving units). For most visitors this will be the familiar yet uneasy face of postmodernism – formally awkward, clashing colours and overtly artificial materials.
If Sottsass is the “style” then the exhibition leaves it up to the musicians of the 1980s to provide the “subversion”. Mick Rock, Boy George, Annie Lennox and Grace Jones are paraded as the harlequins of fashion with Laurie Anderson bringing up the rear with a something pertaining to performance art. Once again the show fails to make the case for why these exhibits are specifically post-modern rather than representing pop culture in general. The inclusion of Grandmaster Flash’s decks was inspired, and hints at the central importance of sampling and collision as a creative strategy in postmodernism.
If you are a fan of architect-designed tea sets then you won’t be disappointed! The age of Wall Street and the proliferation of Gordon Gekko look-alikes also permitted a growth of highly expensive designer consumer products for the home. Made from the most refined materials, by some of the biggest designers of the age these objects evoke the age of Faberge but without the “taste”. The one that is really worth taking home is Michael Grave’s Mickey Mouse tea set commission for Disney.
In the money section the big hitters of Warhol and Koons are brought to bare. Koon's stainless steel replica of Bernini's bust of the Louis XIV is rather awkwardly placed in an alcove but nevertheless makes a point about the recoding of historical artefacts as objects of commercial desire. The Warhol dollar sign screenprint however seems more like signage than part of the exhibition per se (perhaps a fitting mistake?).
The show is brash, fluorescent and cool but it is often difficult to detect where bad “pop art” leaves off and postmodernism proper begins. Ultimately one is left without a better grasp on what Postmodernism was (or indeed, still is) but more convinced than ever that a re-appraisal of post modernism is not only timely but also incredibly necessary.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum
Images:Haim Steinbach, ‘supremely black,’ 1985. Plastic laminated wood, shelf, ceramic pitchers, cardboard detergent boxes © Private collection. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the Las Vegas desert with, the strip in the background, 1966 © Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates