A new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum rediscovers postmodernist art, architecture, interior design, film and fashion.
Text by Anna Battista
Defining the meaning of the word “postmodernism” is a bit like trying to detect at first glance the purpose of an interior design piece by the Memphis Milano movement, while describing in one word its shape and silhouette. In a nutshell, it’s not only difficult, it’s pratically impossible.
Throughout the decades this term has been applied to a wide range of disciplines, from art to architecture, and employed to describe fashion collections, films and music. Used and abused by many, the word has now turned into the subject of a new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Entitled “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990”, the event takes the visitor on a fascinating journey through the composite narratives of postmodernism, analysing its aesthetic, exuberance, cleverness, self-assurancy, contradictions and tendency to parody and plagiarise.
Curated by Jane Pavitt and Glenn Adamson, the exhibition opens with the death of modernism. Footage of Alessandro Mendini’s “Monumentino da Casa” (Household Monument, 1974), a chair on top of a flight of steps forming a ziggurat structure (the ziggurat will reappear every now and then in the exhibition, so pay attention to this first one), burning down in a deserted quarry near Genoa.
This image is juxtaposed to the destruction of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis on 15th March 1972, an event that, according to Charles Jencks, marked the death of modernism.
Ettore Sottsass’s “Totem” (1967) in brightly coloured glazed earthernware and his Art Deco-meets-cartoon teapots “Basilico” (1972), “Cherries” (1972) and “Lapis Lazuli” (1973), inspired by the shape of ziggurats, are displayed next to the iconic posters – combining imperial flags and nudes from 16th Century French paintings – from the mid-’60s, designed by the pioneer of collage Tadanori Yokoo for performances “A La Miason De M. Civecawa” (To the Shibusawa house) and “The Great Mirror of the Dance as an Immolative Sacrifice”, by choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata and the Garumella Company.
Nils-Ole Lund’s apocalyptic “The future of architecture” (1979), a collage showing a ruined version of James Stirling’s Leicester University Engineering Building with a rusting car dominating the foreground, marks the beginning of a new section, with a 1967 quote by theorist Bruno Zevi stating, “Whoever decides to abandon the modern movement can choose between Versailles and Las Vegas”, that is between high classicism and low, popular architecture.
Projects by Robert Venturi introduce the visitors to the architectural section of the exhibition: there is a model of Vanna Venturi’s house in Philadelphia (1959-64), an icon of post-modernism, followed by Venturi’s work with Gerard Clark and Denise Scott Brown and their studies of the commercial architecture of the highway strip as epitomised by Las Vegas and the creative solutions it could lead to.
This is undoubtedly one of the stronger parts of this event since it features very interesting and inspiring projects, from Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia (1978), a urban public plaza in New Orleans characterised by a rather exuberant design, to Aldo Rossi’s Architettura delle Città with the San Cataldo cemetery in Modena (1971-78) and its symmetrically arranged columns, cylinders and cubes; from James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart (1977-1983) with its bright coloured high-tech elements to Ricardo Bofill’s ten-story amphitheatre Les Espaces d’Abraxas in Marne-la-Vallée (1978-82) that inspired the fantasy architectures in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Gaetano Pesce’s longitudinal section of the Church of Solitude in Manhattan, with its dystopian mood, oblique floors and dark spaces providing refuge to people’s future needs (1974-77).
Interesting projects and rare images are compared and examined one next to the other: paper architecture is rediscovered via Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin’s “Columbarium Habitabile”, a columbaria filled not with the urns of the cremated but with the buildings from the past; Rem Koolhaas and Madeleine Vriesendorp’s Welfare Palace Hotel project (1974) looks instead at Manhattan as a urban testing ground for the splendour and miseries of the metropolitan condition, a concept explored further in Vriesendorp’s ironic “Flagrant Délit”, a film in which the Rockefeller Center spire discovers the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in bed together.
While architecture continues in this space with a selection of projects including the ones for a new vision of Rome presented at the 1978 Venice Architecture Biennale, Giulio Paolini “L’Altra Figura” (1984), two heads raised on plinths reflecting each other and staring at the remains of another bust that has crashed on the floor, shifts the focus towards other disciplines and objects and on composite pieces and the importance of bricolage in postmodernism.
Among the examples of this technique there are Nathan Silver’s “Adhocist Chair “(1968), made with recycled materials including gas pipes, plastic foam and wheelchair wheels, and Pieter de Bruyne’s Chantilly chest (1975), that layers in one piece a faux Baroque cabinet and a lacquered chipboard in bold colours.
The latter is compared to Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist house in Santa Monica (1977-78), a building wrapped in different strata that subvert their original purposes, and to Robert Rauschenberg’s collage painting “Estate” (1963).
Collage and bricolage return also in the teapots and lamps by artists Peter Shire (invited to join the Memphis Milano group after Sottsass saw his teapots) and Garry Knox Bennett.
The colums of “Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past”, Hans Hollein’s project for the 1980 Venice Biennale, tracing with their different styles from various architectural decades a brief history of world architecture, introduce the next section that is very aptly entitled “Apolocalypse Now”.
The ruins of the post-industrial landscape fascinated many designers and artists who created dystopic pieces using salvaged and distressed materials that reproduced a sort of asthetics of urban apocalypse.
A video showing the densely populated landscape of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a cityscape in which hi-tech buildings meet Art Deco skyscrapers à la Metropolis suggesting a retro eclecticism dominated by fear and anxieties, forms the background for a series of domestic objects merging the past and the future, among them Ron Arad’s “Concerete Stereo” (1983), Bill Woodrow’s “Twin-Tub with Guitar” (1981), Daniel Weil’s “Muralla China Radio” and Gaetano Pesce’s “Pratt” chair in moulded plastic questioning the nature, form and function of this ordinary piece of furniture.
Jewellery designers will particularly enjoy and be inspired by composite jewellery including Bernhard Schobinger’s necklaces “Scherben vom Moritzplatz Berlin”, made with glass shards from a Coca-Cola bottle (1983-84), and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1987), exploring themes such as violence and destruction through pieces of Japanese porcelain and broken roof tiles.
This part of the exhibition is interesting also for fashion fans since it includes Vivienne Westwood’s Spring/Summer 1983 (“Punkature” collection) dress with prints of images from Blade Runner and a Comme des Garçons’ 1982 jumper and skirt donned by a mannequin recreating a pose based on a photo styled by Rei Kawakubo (slightly reminiscent of a picture of a model wearing Yeohlee Teng’s wool melton cape taken in the same year).
Before passing onto the next session, don’t forget to look at the work of Nigel Coates’ experimental architecture group NATO and watch Derek Jarman’s “The Last of England” (1987) film, a critique of British society and of the state of the arts and culture in which the author states, “My world is in fragments smashed to pieces so fine I doubt I will ever reassemble them”.
The following room will make many Italian visitors happy since it’s entirely dedicated to the work of some of the most important designers working in Milan in the ’70s and the ’80s, most of them revolving around the Studio Alchimia and the Memphis Milano movement.
The room opens with one of the best pieces included in this exhibition the “Homage to Lévi-Strauss” dress (1983-94) by Italian designer Cinzia Ruggeri (an artist and designer too many of us forgot, though she has been quoted by many, Viktor & Rolf included). This green silk dress is characterised by a ziggurat shape on the righthand side and was one of Ruggeri’s many experiments in three-dimensional forms. Some Italian visitors may remember the dress appearing on the cover of Matia Bazar’s “Aristocratica” album with a background designed by Studio Alchimia (you can learn more about this dress from this fascinating blog post about how the display mannequin reproducing the model who first wore it was created).
There is an infectious feeling of joyous anarchy in this room thanks to Alessandro Mendini’s “Proust”, a pointillist postimpressionistic 18th century Baroque chair (1978), Ettore Sottsass’s “Trembling Structures” table (1979) and his “Mobile Infinito”, incorporating pieces by different designers and with Munch’s “Scream” painted on one side.
The pieces created by the designers of the Memphis Milano movement often looked like toys, their immediate purpose and functionality obliterated by their unusual shapes, vivid textures or pastel shades. Perfect examples are Michele De Lucchi’s “Sinerpica” table lamp (1979) or his prototype models for Girmi homeware products, including an iron, a toaster, a hair dryer and a vacuum cleaner.
The main space in this room also features an installation dedicated to a series of objects “for the electronic age”, including Natalie du Pasquier and George Sowden’s “Gracieux Accueil” (1983), a storage box in plastic laminates with a colourful and patterned surface, Sottasass’ “Casablanca Sideboard”, his “Murmask” centrepriece with its zigzagging legs inspired by Art Deco, his “Ashoka” lamp and his composite glass vases.
The Memphis-Milano palette is characterised by artificial colours evoking sundaes, as proved by Marco Zanini’s “Colorado” teapot, (1983), solar shapes and synthetic plastics, but some pieces such as Javier Mariscal’s “Hilton” serving cart, looking as if it had been rolling downhill at top speed, Michele De Lucchi’s “Oceanic Lamp” and Martine Bedin’s “Super Lamp”, a coloured hemisphere on wheels with a row of lightbulbs, also show a certain fascination with movement.
The curators included in this space the drawings and sketches of iconic pieces by Sowden and Sottsass and objects and furniture directly inspired by the Memphis Milano movement and created by designers such as Borek Sipek.
As the decades passed, postmodernism spread like a virus to other fields: Edwina Orr and David Trayner’s Boy George hologram (1985) takes the visitors through performance strategies, trying to detect the postmodernist logic in the work of costume designers, dancers and choreographers.
Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan’s costumes for Blade Runner are among the best pieces included in this section. Zhora’s fetishistic plastic trench, S&M thigh-high boots, bra and briefs are displayed next to Rachael’s sculptural power suit with its strong padded shoulders and straight line, calling to mind Schiaparelli’s designs and evoking in the visitors’ minds images of the composite sets of Ridley Scott’s film with their streets mixing Hong Kong markets, Shanghai noir atmospheres and New York moods.
Annie Lennox’s tartan suit designed by Jeff Banks is employed to explore androgyny, a theme that resurfaces also in the video of Kazuo Ohno performing in “La Argentina Sho”, directed by Hijikata and dedicated to spanish dancer Antonia Mercé.
Dance fans should take their time to watch this video and the decorative costume designed by Jeff Koons and David Salle for Karole Armitage’s punk-inspired piece “Gogo Ballerina” (1988), with its plastic tubes that illuminate the skirt from the inside, and the kinky and disturbing outfits comprising wrestling masks and capes with 17th century embroideries matched with garish sequinned pink stockings and corsets by Leigh Bowery and Mr Pearl for the Michael Clark Company.
Culturally speaking this is probably the most accessible part of the exhibition since it includes also a music section – with videos by Kraftwerk, Neneh Cherry, Visage and Devo (check out also Devo’s suit with its energy dome headgear as worn in 1980 by Gerald Casale, inspired by ancient ziggurat mounds used in votive worship) plus Grandmaster Flash’s turntables.
A special shrine is dedicated to Grace Jones with video extracts, photomontages of this extraordinary icon by Jean-Paul Goude and the Soviet Constructivism-inspired maternity dress with exclamation mark hat designed for Jones in 1979 by Goude and Antonio Lopez; German countertenor Klaus Nomi singing in his trademark voice “Lightning Strikes” wearing a patent leather tuxedo and Talking Heads’s David Byrne’s suit with its thetrically exaggerated silhouette close this section.
A good idea at this point is to take a break in the Laurie Anderson room and watch her singing in a video from the 1982 South Bank Show.
Graphic design enthusiast will find the next part of the exhibition particularly interesting thanks to its covers of The Face with art direction by Neville Brody, and issues of radically revolutionary magazines, from Terry Jones’ i-D to Emigre, Lamb, Wet and Dutch Hard Werken magazine, edited between 1978 and 1982 by Rick Vermeulen.
The collection of sleeve art is a particularly exciting and includes Kraftwerk’s Constructivist “The Man Machine”, Peter Saville’s Haçienda posters and Factory covers for Joy Division and New Order’s albums, including “Movement” (1981), with its art plagiarised from the cover of a 1932 essay by Italian Futurist Fortunato Depero in honour of Marinetti’s visit to the Trentino Region, and “Power Corruption and Lies” (1983), based on a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour.
The radical work of Colin Fulcher aka “Barney Bubbles”, one of the most famous British graphic designers between the ‘70s and the ’80s (many will remember his work for Elvis Costello or The Damned) is juxtaposed to further iconic record sleeves such as Malcolm Garrett and Linder Sterling’s cover for the Buzzcocks’ “Orgasm Addict” (1977).
Paula Scher’s Swatch posters (1984) and rare images of April Greiman’s “Pacific Wave” illustrations for a group show at the Fortuny Museum in Venice (1987) complete this section.
The final part of the exhibition focuses on what could be defined as the pancultural progress of postmodernism and its consequent selling out.
Art, architecture, fashion, interior design and photography are all rolled together under the label “Money”, hinting at capital accumulation with messages such as Andy Warhol’s 1981 silkscreen of a dollar sign, Jenny Holzer’s ironic statement on consumerist excess stating “Protect me from what I want” and Frank Schreiner’s shopping cart seat dubbed the “Consumer’s Rest” chair.
There’s a sense of tackiness in some pieces like Jeff Koons’ stainless steel bust of Louis XIV (1986) and the 1991 yellow and black sequinned jacket by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel.
Architecture is featured also in this part of the exhibition, with Philip Johnson’s AT&T (Sony) pink granite skyscraper in Manhattan with its broken pediment used as a reference to Venturi’s house for his mother and its arcades reminiscent of San Andrea in Mantua; Shin Takamatsu’s Ark for a Japanese dental clinic and Phillippe Starck’s 1989 Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo.
Interior designs come back with tea and coffee set designed by Mario Bellini (for Cleto Munari), Michele De Lucchi, Paolo Portoghesi and Aldo Rossi.
But there is also something beautiful for all the lovers of jewellery and accessories in particular Michele De Lucchi, Marco Zaini and Ettore Sottsass’ pieces made mixing yellow and white gold with green agata, black and white onyx, turquoise, emeralds, sapphires and pearls, and more experimental pieces such as Gijs Bakker’s “Pforzheim 1780” (1985), a colour photo of a necklace printed on PVC, and Otto Künzli’s 1986 “Fragment” necklace with its gold-leafed oval picture frame.
Pop assumes a dark twist in the Mickey Mackintosh chair by Wendy Maruyama, paying homage to Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, while the dystopia of Blade Runner turns in this section into an analysis of “life out of balance” in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, with its cities and traffic.
Mendini and Etro’s designer suit (2001) covered in brand logos and Ai Weiwei’s 1994 ironic “Han Dynasty Vase” with Coca Cola logos, close this section that culminates in New Order’s video “Bizarre Love Triangle”, summing up with its images of people clad in business suits yuppie culture. leaving the visitor with a sense of loss and destruction.
As a whole “Postmodernism” is another hit exhibition at the V&A, yet there are some minor and major faults in it. While this is a good journey recreated in a great setting, there are times when the visitor will wonder why some connections weren’t made (references to MTV’s influence or to early-’80s bands such as Win with “Super Popoid Groove” wouldn’t have hurt, besides, why aren’t there any references to the sleeve art of records from other countries? Matia Bazar with their Cinzia Ruggeri/Studio Alchimia covers would have fit in…).
At least we have been spared a focus on contemporary “artists” and “performers” (Lady Gaga included…) using post-modernist techniques in their work and that was a good choice, though in some parts the curators seemed to be trying too hard to balance more intense bits of the exhibition with slightly more accessible ones.
The best thing about “Postmodernism” though is that, while a few younger visitors will be happy to know they were born after its worst excesses and exuberant moments, those in their late thirties and forties, will feel some pangs of nostalgia, and will even realise that, after all, this post-postmodernist age we’re living in, is maybe much more depressing than a time when brightly coloured lamps and ziggurat dresses were all the rage.
“Postmodernism: Style and Subversion”, 1970-1990, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 15th January 2012.