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“Postmodernism. Style and subversion 1970-1990” aims to revise a few years that are associated with an uninhibited creative freedom, of cut and paste, pastiche and partying. They are also the years of Thatcher, Reagan and AIDS. A time of reference for many generations the content of which needs revised to go beyond the stereotypes.
Doric columns with a blue neon frieze, a Deco sofa upholstered with Op motifs, a chair not for sitting on or a record player made out of concrete. These are a few of the images that we hope to find in an exhibition dedicated to postmodernism. They are indeed there, pieces by Hans Hollein, Alessando Mendini, Howard Meister and Ron Arad. They are the prototypical image of an era, of a few years, a way of doing things that we identify with the eighties of the last century, only thirty years ago! Already thirty years ago! And a label that seemed to qualify everything: postmodernism. As the curators of the exhibition, Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt rightly clarify, at that time everything was post: “post-industrialisation, post-fordism, post-colonialism, post-disciplinarity, post-gender, even post-human” they quote in the catalogue. However the virtue of the exhibition “Postmodernism. Style and subversion 1970-1990” lies in showing that these odd sofas, these neon lights, the music, art, design and architecture of these years, raised many questions that went beyond stereotypes and what is more, continue to be valid and current today.
First clarification, it is not an exhibition about post-modernity, with the philosophical complexity that this could give rise to, but about postmodernism, identified as a way of doing things that lasted more or less twenty years, from 1970 onwards. Second clarification, it is an exhibition in a museum of applied arts, the V&A in London. Art and literature illustrate the exhibition in the same way that in others the furniture illustrates the works of art. Perhaps it couldn’t be any other way, because postmodernism begins as a movement or tendency in architecture and design. First problem and warning from the curators: neither in the exhibition nor in the catalogue do we find any definition about postmodernism. How do you define a label that everyone has wanted to jettison? How do you define practices that are qualified by their very ambiguity? It wasn’t really necessary the warning that this is an exhibition in a museum of decorative arts and as such prominence would be given to architecture and design (something made manifest throughout the exhibition). Because the key, the curators are swift to point out, is the very hybrid nature of postmodernism, its ambiguity (that defies definition).
Ambiguity and hybridisation are not just mixtures of genres and eras, but also have something to do with this post-disciplinarity, that appears as yet another post. In fact with all the post- that they mention. Laurie Anderson musician, Laurie Anderson performer, Laurie Anderson poet, Laurie Anderson video-artist. In a whole section of the exhibition, that dedicated to music, the stage-set of the typical disco or bar with the industrial feel of the time, the record covers for New Order and Joy Division or the Talking Heads videos all place in evidence the collaboration between musicians, artists, fashion designers, graphic designers and filmmakers… As if the usual “anything goes” had been a poorly interpreted disqualification to try to straighten out a more insulting, complex and less approachable expression. A “who cares!”, that also encompasses Punk and post-Punk (another post-), very present in the exhibition (in a British museum that has already dedicated an exhibition to Vivianne Westwood). The “who cares!” is carefree but also insolent, and as such in accord with the subtitle of the exhibition, “style and subversion”, terms that in themselves could seem contradictory. This “who cares!” talks of leaping between categories and the collaboration between distinct creators as characteristic of postmodernism, and as such, a lack of respect for economic regimes that establish divisions between the arts (and which we seem to have accepted without much ado, enchanted by a buoyant market that has now gone down the drain). However, and here the apparent contradiction, with a freedom that mixes without prejudices, that dresses up and masquerades. Like David Byrne singing “Girlfriend Is Better”, dressed in a suit ten sizes too big, in the documentary film “Stop Making Sense” by Jonathan Demme (Talking Heads was one of the favourite groups of the murderer Patrick Bateman, protagonist of the novel “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis). A freedom that pilfers, that cuts and pastes.
Grace Jones photographed and cut up to compose a figure with an impossible elasticity, way before PhotoShop (Grace Jones paradigm of ambiguity! Grace Jones post-gender!). The skyline of Las Vegas as a collage made up of the luminous signage photographed by Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. The record cover for Movement by New Order by Peter Saville, copying a futurist poster by Fortunato Depero. Blade Runner in a scenario that moves forty years forward to 2019 with flying cars and forty years back with ancient Cadillacs, in a city that is both Los Angeles and Shanghai. The homo-sampler that Eloy Fernández Porta talks of appears at the end of modernity, qualifying the post-modern as prior to the appearance of Internet in 1991 (hence the cut off date of the exhibition) and as such, also prior to the unbridled persecution of the copy, guaranteeing the rights of the author, the defence of an impossible originality.
The seventies, the date that the exhibition takes as the outburst of postmodernism, began with a crisis and rolled on into the eighties with Thatcherism, Reagan, the political commitment of artists such as Jenny Holzer and Aids. By chance a biopic film about Margaret Thatcher, defender of Pinochet, the Iron Lady, is just out on release. The eighties are back. Postmodernism is fashionable. The shop set up at the end of the exhibition sells colourful Ray-Ban Wayfarers that are back “in”. The crisis is back with us, and also the trend towards conservatism. In the catalogue the curators don’t deny the opportunity. They argue it as a generational thing. They, like many others, were formed culturally, intellectually and emotionally by the period that ran from1970 to 1990. Their references are to be found there. In Spain, these years are also now being revised, with television programmes dedicated to the “movida” (incidentally Mariscal, Almodovar and Ouka Leele have their space in the exhibition as representatives of the euphoria of the eighties and the designer bars in Spain). References that remind us, in effect, of drinking in bars with post-industrial aesthetics, sitting on uncomfortable seats, Talking Heads playing in the background, and devouring magazines such as i-D.
The audacity of the proposal at the V&A Museum is to go beyond the nostalgia, which various generations can identify with, to look at what it brought, what remains in force and what needs to be recuperated. To think of a freedom without complexes, forgetting the hangover that reduced everything to economics would be no mean feat.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)