Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at the V &A- 20th Century Toys, Boys and Girls

Walking around this exhibition it was an unsettling experience to try to equate the concept of postmodernism, with its futuristic name, concepts and designs with the feeling of witnessing a movement that is very much past. Though it is only the recent past, it feels distant, perhaps due to the fact that everything in the exhibition pre-dates the internet. What must have seemed like an impossibly fast change of trends, information, design and technology is now positively steam age compared to today. Yet this impressively curated ‘blockbuster’ exhibition still has a shocking power to it, a radical, experimental edge that outside of perhaps art and sculpture is unlikely to be found today. There is an enormous sense of energy and flux, of collage and cross -over that has calmed and levelled now as the impact, particularly of mass-commercialisation has subsided.

Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define so I will predicate my review of this exhibition with some much clearer examples than I could hope to offer. J.M. Bernstein, says that ‘its controlling movement is the collapse of the difference between culture and practical life.’ Terry Eagleton describes it as ‘sceptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends towards cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.’ Finally Louis Menand, cited in the excellent accompanying book to the exhibition, says ‘postmodernism is the Swiss Army Knife of critical concepts. It’s definitely overloaded, and it can do almost any job you need done.’  The writers of the book (the curators of the exhibition Glenn Adamson and Jane Parvitt) add as a proviso to their vision ‘we have taken our subject to be postmodernism rather than postmodernity in general – that is a set of intentional design strategies, not the overarching condition that made them possible.’  The exhibition leans towards the end products, a particularly apt word given the preoccupation with commodification, of postmodernism rather than works that reflect on the notions of postmodernity, although of course the two are by no means distinctly separate.

The opening piece is Alessandro Mendini’s Destruction of Lassu Chair (1974) which combines a a sculpture of a simple wooden child’s toy chair raised upon a series of steps and a photo montage of footage Mendini recorded of the moment he set the chair alight in a disused quarry. On the opposite wall is a black and white large-scale photo of the demolition of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St Louis Missouri  in 1972. This immediate assault on the senses is one of total destruction, a ritual obliteration of old, modernist forms to signal a new, formless, postmodern era.  There is no direct connection between these two events, two years apart, but they both depict key moments when the modernist project collapsed in on itself. A third piece that completes a trinity of destruction is Guilio Paolini’s L’Altra Figura (1984) in which two white plaster heads in classical style on plinths are looking cautiously down at a third which is shattered in pieces below. This piece stands out particularly in the context of the V & A museum, containing hundreds of similarly precarious looking  priceless figurines which must have tested millions of parents nerves as their children run carelessly past. The urge though to intentionally smash something precisely because it is so valuable is one that often comes to me when visiting art galleries, so to see this rather dark fantasy made real is quite a spectacle, given ironic validation by the ‘do not touch’ signs surrounding it.

The language of signs, their proliferation in the post-urban environment and their directions of our lives is explored in photographs by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The best of these is a shot looking down a highway which is entirely in black and white, except for two signs on either side of the road both in full colour. One is a giant advertisement for a rather disgusting looking sandwich called a ‘Hoagie’ and the other is a giant reproduction of a Renaissance painting for the Philadelphia museum of art. This juxtaposition or levelling of high and low culture meant that there no longer needed to be an either/or when choosing subjects for artistic commentary, it can be the classicism of Versailles or the mock-classicism of Las Vegas, both are equally valid. Placelessness is an interesting concept that permeates much of the civic space architecture featured, in particular Charles Moore’s Piazza D’Italia (1976-9) in New Orleans which has as its centrepiece a fountain in the shape of Italy surrounded by fake Roman colonnades. There is a disconnect between the architecture and the locality it represents with Las Vegas the culmination of this, an everywhere and nowhere place, total pastiche and fakery. This can be seen as the ‘Disneyfication’ effect which ahistoricises places by taking the architectural and cultural signifiers of one country and artificially recreating it in another. This for me was one of the most compelling narratives of postmodernism as despite Eagleton stressing the emphasis on cultural plurality and heterogeneity in his definition, aggressive (often American) commercialisation has led to greater global homogenisation, shopping centres, retail parks, hotels, supermarkets look the same the world over. This vision of homogeneity and urban uniformity is manifested in a scene from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) shown on a giant screen in which the camera sweeps over a vast metropolis composed of skyscrapers, neon lights and smoke.

I approached the exhibition with some literary/cultural theory knowledge but little about the practical techniques of postmodern design, but learnt much from the accompanying text-boards to the pieces which explained some of the terminology. For example bricolage and adhocism, are similar concepts in which there is a throwing together of different materials, which unlike modernist collage removes the artists intention and direction of the piece by placing the focus more on the medium in which it is conveyed. This can be sesen in Bernhard Schobinger’s Shards from Moritzplatz, Berlin (1983-4) a necklace made of television bulbs, Coca-Cola bottle fragments, silver and steel wire. It says more about the moment in history it is constructed from that anything about jewellery or art. A complete contrast to this are the hyper-aesthetic household objects of  the Memphis design group led by Ettore Sottsass. This was my least favourite part of the exhibition, the most interesting thing about the Memphis group was a surreal photo of them squashed together in a boxing ring by Masanori Umeda entitles Tawaraya (1981). Many of their pieces have become design classics like Sottass’s Olivetti typewriter, but others look like they could be found in the Teletubbies house, as they are in such bad taste; so garishly coloured and strangely shaped, Michele De Lucchi’s prototypes  (1979) for example:

This over the top experimentalism with impractical forms, shapes and materials was also evident in the music videos of the time, and at one point you enter a strange neon lit stage which could be a New York underground club or a set from Top of the Pops circa 1984. The idea of a single medium for music videos, MTV, might seem quaint now but at the time was an incredibly powerful force for reaching global audiences. The three alternating videos shown (Klaus Nomi, Grace Jones and Talking Heads) show the influence of performance art, embracing androgeny, high camp, exaggerated costumes, make-up and dance routines. Musicians use the medium to make a shocking fashion or artistic statement like Madonna or in the case of David Byrne or Kraftwerk using the medium to reflect on and critique itself. This aggressively ‘look at me.’  strike a pose and be ubiquitous approach makes uncomfortable viewing, but its effect is still prevalent today, in the work of Lady Gaga for example. There is an all consuming mass-commercialisation and commodification of music and again the power of the image and the medium of the message is paramount. Not just music and fashion, but the entire aesthetic of the 1980’s is now seen as one of decadence, selfishishness, rampant consumerism and excess that seems all the more absurd given the state of the economy today. Yet it is difficult for someone who did not live for much of that decade to understand the daily fear of extinction that the threat of nuclear war held over everyone’s heads and the hedonistic, end-of-the-world feel this must have created. We are no less materialistic today, just more inured and unthinking about it, it is more ingrained and reflexive, less of a spectacle of desire.

One of the reasons postmodernism is considered by some to be finished, an irritating, kitsch fad now thankfully over is that it became increasingly associated with corporate greed and self indulgence. A giant quote from Martin Amis’s 1984 novel adorns one wall: ‘Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength. It’s a fiction, an addiction, and a tacit conspiracy.’ Opposite it is Andy Warhol Dollar Sign (1981) a signature silk screen painting of a brash gold and blue sketched dollar sign on a striking red background. There are many pieces that embody this idea to be as big, bold and beautiful as possible but admist the madness a warning, Jenny Holzer’s Protect me from what I want (1985) in which these words were lit up in LED lights on a Times Square billboards, competing to be heard amongst hundreds of advertisements conveying the opposite message.  For me though, the piece that has the most contemporary relevance, especially given his recent media coverage, is Ai Weiwei’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo (1994)It was one of the few non-western pieces in the exhibition It is one of the simplest and yet most shocking pieces of art one could possibly see, an ancient urn with the iconic red Coca-Cola lettering branded on it. It symbolises, heritage, appropriation, globalisation, the shock that the brand is more recognisable than the object and the uneasy but increasingly important collision of eastern and western traditions. Ironically the urn was an incredibly valuable artefact and yet became more valuable after it became a piece of (post)modern art.

One of the concluding statements of the exhibition is that ‘we are all postmodern now.’ The way I interpreted this was that the spectacle of quotidian life has become of artistic interest, life can no longer be easily categorised in to work and leisure time, and culture is no longer sacrosanct divided into high or low. Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone could have their fifteen minutes of fame not only became possible but compressed into mere seconds of fame as an image can now instantly be transmitted around the world (and unlike in the 1980’s) from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone and video camera. It would be interesting to see what would feature in a similar retrospective of the 200o’s held in 2030: Facebook, Youtube, Al-Qaeda videos, Obama poster campaigns, Beijing architecture, Guantanamo orange jump suits, Lady Gaga outfits? What it would even be called, post-post modernism? Post-contemporary? This exhibition is so fascinating because it is possibly the last era in which physical, material matter dominates over digital content, as the writers of the book state ‘postmodernism was first achieved by conventional methods – paper, scissors and  glue and distributed by print, post and fax.’ It was also the final era (at least in the West) in which economic growth and mass production was expected to go onwards and upwards. Today we realise the limitations imposed amongst other things by climate change and the recent financial meltdown. It is a celebration of the creativity, innovation and experimentalism of the end of the 20th century and also a stark warning as to why rampant individualism and greed has led to the mess we are in now; a funeral rite for the dominance of western capitalism now beginning its slow decline.

The accompanying book is also worth buying because it is not just a catalogue of the exhibits but features a 100 page essay exploring the history of postmodernism and many of the major critics associated with it. The remainder features mini-essays by a series of critics on specific niches of postmodernism  some of which the exhibition touches upon such as ‘On Bricolage,’ ‘Big Magazines: Design as the Message’  ‘Fashion Violence and Hypereality’ and some it doesn’t such as ‘Margaret Thatcher: Postmodernism and the Politics of Design in Britain’ and ‘Coming up for Air: 1980’s Spanish style culture.’ It is both a collector’s item for those interested in the art and design of the era from a historical perspective and also a useful tool for students of postmodernism and theory.

Exhibition 4/5

Book 5/5

Further Reading:

  • Post-Modernism, The New Classicism in Art and Architecture – Charles Jencks
  • The Post-Modern reader – Charles Jenck
  • The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge – Jean -Francois Lyotard
  • Beginning Postmodernism – Tim Woods
  • After Theory – Terry Eagleton
  • The Culture Industry – Theodor Adorno
  • A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
  • Underworld – Don DeLillo
  • American Psycho – Brett Easton Ellis
  • Money – Martin Amis


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5 responses to “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at the V &A- 20th Century Toys, Boys and Girls

  1. Pingback: 10,000 Thanks | Quotation is the national vice

  2. Pingback: modernism, postmodernism and metamodernism « patternsthatconnect

  3. A brilliant write-up. I haven’t seen the show, and though I now want to do (and probably won’t get much chance to before Jan 15, when it closes), I almost feel as though I did go, and thanks for the information about the book – which I will order.

    • Thanks a lot. I was worried it was a bit long-winded and over detailed, but I felt I had a lot to say about it as it resonated with a lot of things I was interested in, have studied and what is happening politically/economically in the world at this moment. The book is brilliant, worth every penny, but definitely try to get up if you can before it closes!

  4. Pingback: The Figure in the Landscape – Sculpture Exhibition at Winchester Discovery Centre | Quotation is the national vice

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