When I walked through the darkened entry door of Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last week, there were a few things I expected to find, and even to feel, when visiting the first major survey of the movement. A Michael Graves tea kettle, for example. Maybe an occasional twinge of repulsion as well. Postmodernism was, in a way, very reactive; surely not all of its expressions could hold up decades later. Add to the mix that no one seems to know how many more “post” prefixes to add on to accurately describe where we’ve philosophically been at in the last 10-20 years, and what I really expected was an almost indescribable suffocating nausea. I also expected that to fuel a good few conversations about why we, in a collective sense, seem to be struggling to throw over the weight of post-modernism (or post-post-modernism, or so on…) the way they had done with modernism, and just get on with it.
The last thing I expected was to be slapped in the face, almost immediately, with an overwhelming and incongruous sense of nostalgia. How on earth did that happen? Jenny Holzer’s Protect Me From What I Want never seemed so relevant…
In one way, I was relieved. That kind of reaction must really mean that post-modernism really is dead. The discussion is over. We are free. So why did I still feel such a sense of loss?
For one, the curation and exhibition design were excellent, and they knew what they were doing: throwing a funeral service. The low lighting, ostensibly to protect the objects exhibited, worked with the dark industrial display units to create an extremely somber atmosphere that at times created the perfect backdrop, by means of contrast, to postmodernism’s most colorful and playful moments. Pieces by early postmodernist Italian design group Memphis were among the works that looked more joyous for this context; the expected Michael Graves tea kettle, however, could have been an Egyptian relic in its low-lit vitrine.
Postmodernism covered a lot of ground, and the stand-out achievement of the exhibition was the successful transition between art, architecture, product design, film, fashion and, perhaps most importantly, music. Pop songs become siren songs, irresistibly pulling you around dark corners to discover the next chapter in Postmodernism’s story, and then decline. Indeed, the room on pop music seems to serve as the exhibition’s control room. Here costumes from Grace Jones, David Byrne, and Klaus Nomi are displayed at unnatural heights, elevating the characters they represent to a God-like status. If any doubt remains as to music’s importance in the exhibition’s narrative, that becomes as dead as the movement itself at the exhibition’s end. Staring at Andreas Gursky’s Tokyo Stock Exchange (1990), you’re pulled around one last corner, past a Robert Longo drawing, by the sound of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. In this last dark room is the video Longo directed for the song, and it’s almost impossible not to see it as an epitaph for a movement that, at that time, was just beginning to crash under its own weight:
I feel fine and I feel good
I’m feeling like I never should
Whenever I get this way
I just don’t know what to say
Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday
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Contributing writer: Melissa Frost
Photos: Victoria & Albert Museum