For some reason, in the wake of men creating darkness, they also make art: Christ gets crucified, someone paints a scene of it. War with the Japanese, a handmade game called “Kill the Jap.” Stalin shaves off and effectively enslaves a solid percentage of Russian society in order to hoist industrialization upon its weary shoulders—a porcelain plate, so you can eat off his face.
Such examples are the art and design found at Bummer, a small, eccentric exhibition on view at the Wolfsonian-FIU. Adding to (and explicating on) this eccentricity is the fact that Todd Oldham, well-known fashion and interior designer and TV host, curated the installation.
Todd Oldham on Todd Time, his segment for MTV's House of Style; Courtesy of MTV
Oldham, who launched his first clothing line in 1989, hosted the “Todd Time” segment on MTV’s House of Style and then his own series Fashionably Loud. Known in the '90s for his kitschy mashup patterning, he’s designed lines for mega-corporate clients such as Target and La-Z-Boy, and has written almost twenty books on design. So he knows something about customized objects and pop culture even if his resume is a little short on curatorial experience. No matter: it’s a good show.
Oldham drew the contents of his installation from the museum’s permanent collection. Consisting of decorative objects, furniture, documents, and paintings, the exhibition, like the Wolfsonian’s collection, is primarily a look at the period from 1885-1945. Oldham was invited to curate the exhibition as part of the museum’s inaugural symposium titled Power of Design, for which “Complaints” was the theme.
Presented salon style, Bummer is great for its parts though lacking in its sum total. Third Reich branded cutlery sits in a display case next to the “caput applicator,” a mid-century S&M-looking device one attaches to the face for sinus suction. An equally uncomfortable and/or arousing chair designed by Frank Lloyd Wright awaits you on the platform parallel. The objects spark an initial rush of interest and consideration, but for the most part they are nothing we haven’t seen before.
The exhibition also commits a fatal flaw inherent in contemporary art, one that arguably crystallized in the '90s: it makes kitsch out of subjects that deserve more intensity, or at least perhaps a different sort of kitsching out. Also, and maybe contradictorily, the shortage of more contemporary objects (i.e. post-war if not post-9/11) doesn’t bode well for producing a “bummer,” if we’re to heed the colloquial spirit of the phrase.
To fly all these objects under the Bummer banner, too, is reflective of the cheeky, euphemistic maneuvering—the complicit, straight-up cheesy spirit of commercial optimism—of what we might call the '90s aesthetic. Put plainly, it sucks the imagination out of what’s required for thinking about the terror of industrial-scale subjugation and extermination of human beings.
Decorative plates on view at Bummer; Courtesy of The Wolfsonian- FIU
However, we may yet think of the exhibition another way. The Stalin plate, also the beautiful and thusly unsettling photos of interior designs by Nazi architect Paul Ludwig Troost—these sorts of objects show that in order to commit the kinds of atrocities that the 20th (and now 21st) Century are known for, it is necessary to make decoration out of the abysmal, to present the tyrant/regime/crime as normal—and not only normal, but also culturally relevant and resonant.
Also suggestive of the limits and successes of the exhibition are the internationally sourced AIDS awareness posters, which depict the humanitarian foil to this fact, the greener grass of modern aesthetic intent. But as one of the few examples of more relatable tragedy, it fails to make an impact beyond a mildly sad nostalgia.
So while Oldham doesn’t provide the tools or context for greater insight into human folly and tragedy, the objects do emit an ambient creepiness that speaks to the inaccessibility of things like Auschwitz and the Gulag.
(Image on top: Installation view of Bummer; Courtesy of The Wolfsonian- FIU)