Postmodernism: The Eternal Return
Wet magazine. Copyright: April Greiman and Jamie Odger. Courtesy of V&A Museum
The return has returned. After years (well, at least a year or so) of yelling in the darkness
of deconstructivism’s debris, I can see the pastiche palaces of Postmodernism rising again out
of the mists of the recent past–even in my language. This week, a major conference on the time or
the movement, I am not sure which, is taking place in New York. I’m missing it, but I did catch
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990 at the Victoria & Albert in
London, where it is on view through Jan. 15, 2012.
The irony of this exhibition—and irony is central to
Postmodernism—is that it is the latest in a series of such shows that itself
constitutes a kind of Postmodernism. For the last decade or so, the V&A has
been reviving those styles that once embodied modernism as the attempt to give
form, image, and space to modernity. Along the way, those varieties of Modernism produced the elements out of
which we construct the pastiches with which we confront and make ourselves at
home in the fragments, ruins, constitutional ephemerality, and global culture
modernity created. Arts & Crafts, Art
Deco, and even Modernism itself showed themselves off in glorious abandon in
the V&A’s cavernous special exhibition halls.
Scott Brown in Las Vegas. Image Credit: Venturi and Scott Brown. Image courtesy of V&A Museum.
Now comes Postmodernism. Charles Jencks first made the phrase popular beyond academic circles by
referring to an architecture that saw itself not as a fact or an inevitable
realization of progress, but as a language. In the exhibition and catalog, curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt
take a more expansive view, eschewing what to those of us that lived through it
seemed like the central question Postmodern designers faced, namely which
tongue or dialect to speak (or not speak, in expressive silence). Instead, they trace Postmodernism from the
“last rites” of modernism, the failed forms of progress, on road trips
through popular culture, the adaptation of the grabbing of fragments from that
global terrain of mass production and consumption in collages, sampling, and
appropriation, the construction of “synthetic identities” (think Bowie and
Grace Jones) out of those fragments, the arrival of “big money” and the transformation
of that punkish detritus into tabletop wares, some of them (like the AT&T
Building) masquerading as architecture, and finally the delirious dissolution
of all that into the kitsch, irony, and camp of the video generation. It makes you want your MTV, and you get
plenty of it at the V&A.
It is an excellent, intelligent journey through this complex
confluence of different approaches and movements. Like all retrospective views, it also makes
you realize that some people got it right, or at least knew how to vamp it up
with style, while others just look plain silly. To my mind, Memphis comes out surprisingly poorly, despite the central
place the curators give it in the formation of Postmodernism. On the other hand, Shiro Kuramata, the
Japanese furniture designer, is indeed the guardian angel the organizers make
him out to be. Michael Graves and Arata
Isozaki look pretty good, as do Venturi and Scott Brown. SITE receives a
deserved second look, while most of the European Neo-Classicists look even thinner
and more ridiculous to me now than they did then.
PoMo videos. Image credit: V&A Museum.
Postmodernism, the exhibition, was for me a trip down memory
lane. It is the first major historical
survey in which I felt I was reflecting back on my own life. I was there at the creation of a few of those
artifacts, and I consumed almost all of them as soon as they appeared in the
magazines, on TV, or out of the ground. I am part of the Postmodern generation and so I cannot see beyond the
movement. So I would say that everything
we inhabit is Postmodern: by its very definition, it is everything that comes
after modernism, and we are still after. All that comes after that after is either a further return, whether to
the orders of modernism, classicism, or any other –ism, to the land, to
material, to one’s self, or to progress itself. Return itself is, of course, Postmodern.
As a style, however, Postmodernism has long been over, and
going through this exhibition is like raiding its tomb. It turns out that there are many artifacts
worth stealing there. The body, in other
words, might be dead, but the spirit lives on.