Monday, November 21, 2011

Postmodernism now

The timing of the "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is both natural and strange. It seems to be a reasonable successor of the "Modernism" exhibition, following several other V&A exhibitions on major styles and movements like "Baroque" and "Art Deco." But it also sounds almost laughable just because of the tackiness of the style. Who would even think about organizing a retrospective on that?

The V&A had the guts to do it, and they've done it well. Presenting over 250 objects across the spectrum from architecture, furniture, to fashion and album covers, the exhibition is flashy, noisy, dynamic, and colorful, reflecting perfectly the aspirations of its subject.

David Byrne said, "I never understand why postmodernism had to define itself in the negative." With no clear definition in hand, the V&A curators chose to start with the negative as well. In the first room, you see the explosion of Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on March 15, 1972, alongside the burning of Mendini's Monumentino da casa chair in 1974. Modernism was dead. Where were we gonna go? Charles Jencks said, "Let us then romp through the desolation of modern architecture, visiting the archaeological sites with a superior disinterest. After all, since it is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse."

Left: Demolition of Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project, 1972;
Right: Alessandro Mendini, Destruction of the Monumentino da casa chair, 1974

Bruno Zevi wrote, "Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas." But to postmodernists, the choice between a look back to the past and the ubiquitous popular/commercial culture was not to pick either one, but both. This "both/and" contradiction is typically postmodern - it's at the same time contemporary and nostalgic, elegant and tacky, cheerful and ruinous, complex and superficial. It's everything and nothing.

On one hand, Venturi and Scott Brown brought our attention to the signs and decorations on the Las Vegas Strip. Later, the Memphis Group and its charismatic poster boy Ettore Sottsass showed the freedom of design with bright colors, vivid patterns, and expressive forms. These almost silly looking chairs and shelves defined the "high taste" of postmodern consumerism.

Denise Scott Brown & Robert Venturi in the Las Vegas desert, 1966
Memphis Group design collection

On the other hand, architects including James Stirling, Ricardo Bofill, Michael Graves, and the Krier brothers started to "experiment" with architectural styles from the past. The V&A curators borrowed the theme of the first Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980 to summarize this tendency: "The Presence of the Past." All of a sudden, the cut-and-paste bricolage was great, and decoration became fashionable business. Charles Moore's Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans illustrates perfectly what a design full of kitsch would look like.
Charles Moore, Piazza d'Italia, 1976-79. New Orleans, LA
Hans Hollein, façade from Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, 1980
(reconstructed for the V&A exhibition, 2011)

History had a profound impact on postmodern aesthetic. Designers embraced not only historic motifs, but also the Apocalypse atmosphere of ruins. Examples from the show include ruin-like drawings and buildings. Rei Kawabuko's choice of putting her black knitted garment with open holes on a contorted "post-human" gesture also represents the dark sensation of the time.
Arata Isozaki, Tsukuba Center, 1979-83
Gaetano Pesce, longitudinal section of the Church of Solitude Manhattan, 1974-7
James Wines/SITE, Best showroom, 1975. Houston, TX
Rei Kawakubo (for Comme des Garçons), Ensemble, 1983.
Modeled by Susan Hess, photograph by Arthur Elgort.

Many have argued that postmodernism was less about style or aesthetic, but more an attitude. It was the defiance against the dogmas of modernism, against authority, and against singularity. I think the best illustration of this is teen star Felix Howard's portrait by Jamie Morgan on The Face magazine. You see a sort of "street" attitude in his eyes, with almost a gangster aura in the costume. It reminds me of Alex in the first half of A Clockwork Orange, representative of enfants terribles from a dystopian society, explicitly antagonistic to any rules.
Jamie Morgan (for The Face), The Harder They Come, The Better, 1985

The highlight of the show for me was the central plaza called "The Club," a space dedicated to postmodern musical performances. Here you have an androgynous Grace Jones, a David Byrne in his big suit, and the self-reinvented flamboyant Klaus Nomi singing in turns on the big screens. In the lower part, Annie Lennox's style breaks free from all gender norms, and a portrait of Andrew Logan at his 1973 Alternative Miss World show makes a loud statement of the gay rights movement.
"The Club." In the center is Jean-Paul Goude & Antonio Lopez's
Constructivist maternity dress originally worn by Grace Jones in 1979.
"The Club" with Klaus Nomi in the middle.
Mick Rock, Andrew Logan as Alternative Miss World host/hostess, 1973

I suddenly thought of Lady Gaga. She can fit right in this crowd. Her self-formation with shimmering synthetic appearances resonates so much with the postmodern idea of "what you wear on the surface defines who you are." As co-curator Glenn Adamson pointed out in an interview, "You wouldn't have Lady Gaga without Grace Jones. Lady Gaga in many ways is a completely postmodern person." Interestingly, she has also become the new gay icon, following the footsteps of Annie Lennox and Madonna, serving as a shining beacon for a community that is still fighting for its rights, struggling even for a proper kiss on TV.
Kurt and Blaine on Glee

We are now facing a social/cultural context not unlike that of the 1970s and 80s. Economy is down, authority is down, and the avant-garde is down. Lyotard's description of the postmodern condition "incredulity towards metanarratives" has never been more present. There is no "grand narratives" of any sort. Everybody just does whatever he/she wants - plurality at its best.

In terms of design, many styles today resemble postmodernism in many ways. Superficiality, nostalgia, indulgence, kitsch, pastiche, frivolousness, you name it. Some of them have got to such an extreme that they become amusing and cool. Stefan Sagmeister inherits both the witty and messy sides of postmodernism in his graphic design. Mendini's Proust chair (but without the Signac painting) resurfaced at the Milan Salone this year, where flamboyance fought against the minimalists, and Karim Rashid continued to lead the cuteness camp set out by the Memphis Group.

Sagmeister Inc., Zurich poster, 2003
The Proust chair at the Milan Salone 2011

Our built environment? I think it's fair to say that Beijing and Dubai now are probably more postmodern than Milan, London, or New York ever were. In a postmodern condition where the image is everything, many once-interesting architects have turned into merely icon makers. Former FOA principals were only interested in the superficial layer of buildings and the patterns on the envelope. OMA's recent interior work is trying to re-legitimize historic motifs as intellectually interesting references. "Emerging" young architects? J. Mayer H., FAT... I don't really want to say more about them.
FOA, John Lewis Department Store, Leicester, UK
OMA, Viktor & Rolf Store at Harvey Nichols, London, UK
Jürgen Mayer H., Danfoss Universe, Nordborg, Denmark
FAT, The Villa in the Heerlijkheid park, Hoogvliet, The Netherlands

The exhibition ends with New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" music video directed by Robert Longo in 1986. I guess we still have this bizarre love/hate triangle between the past, the present, and us. Look at what's all around us now. It's really the perfect time to review this strange period of history and think about today. As the closing remark of the exhibition states, "Like it or not, we are all postmodern now."

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