running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Postmodernism at the V&A

At last - a comprehensive exhibition about a movement which remains almost too pretentious to discuss in public, even if you were there when it all happened, and understand it perfectly.

Being in London to see three of my students pick up YCN Awards, I managed to find time to get across London from Shoreditch to Kensington to the V&A to see Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

In a rather dark enclosed space (by V&A standards), gaudy neon arrows point the way through a series of sets comprising a visual and audio history of art and design during the latter quarter of the 20th century.

From the Memphis Group and their deconstruction of modernist architecture, to the splatter, pomp and shoulder pads of new wave fashion, the rule-breaking self-expression of print design at the height of Thatcherism, and the endless parodies, facsimiles and fractured reworkings of high culture - the V&A have assembled a sort of frame-by-frame VHS video walk-through of what happened after the death of Modernism.

Along the way there are some amazing highlights. Three film sequences comprising the opening scene of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner; a clip from Koyaanisquatsi, and Laurie Anderson's 'Oh Superman'; iconic imagery of Grace Jones; David Byrne's oversize suit; photography by Andreas Gursky; huge quote from Martin Amis' novel Money in foot-high bold condensed Helvetica, and finally, a graphics room featuring Wolfgang Weingart, Paula Scher, April Greiman, Barney Bubbles, Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville.

'Wet' Magazine, April Greiman/Jamyne Odgers, 1979.

Grace Jones 'Island Life', 1985, by Jean Paul Goude.

Ultra Vivid Scene, 1988 - Vaughan Oliver.

Jenny Holzer - Times Square, 1970's.

Each room adds to the cerebral eclecticism of the exhibition. We can argue about what postmodernism is or isn't, but I am left with two satisfying affirmations, and one stark realisation about this remarkable show.

Firstly, that postmodernism was an accidental movement, driven by protagonists who were unaware of what they were actually contributing to. They were messing with what they knew, and making it up as they went along. Jenny Holzer's brilliant tagline 'protect me from what I want' epitomises the irony that took itself seriously. These words are still dangerous to read, and feels somehow subliminally buried in almost every ad you see on TV and in the street, here and now in 2011.

Secondly, that postmodernism, regardless of how it is defined, really did create 'no space between the avant garde and commercial spheres'. Here was the art movement which nobody could understand, but could all buy into. Whatever came after Modernism embraced the mainstream without any discernible concessions, dilution or apologies.

I grew up during the late 1970's and early 1980's, and can testify that this exhibition is recognisably authentic.

In the graphics room I was able to tick off the artefacts I own copies of - albums sleeves for Kraftwerk, Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, Joy Division and Ultra Vivid Scene, a copy of the Face. And in the bookshop afterwards - novels by Bret Easton Ellis, Thomas Pynchon, William Burroughs and Umberto Eco, and half the design books in our studio library.

But my main realisation, and minor epiphany, is the unspoken conclusion of this exhibition, exemplified in Alessandro Mendini's strange three piece suit, covered in the famous brand logotypes of the day : that postmoderism was the last gasp of the analogue world and the first breath of the internet age.

In this exhibition there are no webpages, apps or compressed video clips. No tweets, urls or photoshopped jpegs - merely the hint of the gargantuan new brands which would appear in the 1990's - Sky, Google, Microsoft and Apple. Postmodernism came before these things, but it laid the groundwork for everything that has happened since.

In the end, this exhibition, which is worth every penny, will tell anyone who cares to discuss it, that postmodernism was in fact predigitalism. And it was a lot of fun.