Sunday, 30 October 2011

...while the irony is hot

Some reflections on the OCA study day at the V&A, looking at the Postmodernism exhibitions. I am trying just for a change to get the blog completed soon after the visit while my memories are still fresh. This was a very comprehensive exhibition and I won't attempt to cover every aspect in this blog, concentrating on the things that most struck me or may be relevant to future work - such as the images in the postcards I bought - shown above.

There were two exhibitions - the main blockbuster Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 and a small separate display of photography influenced by postmodernism - the picture below shows the photography gallery.

OCA students and tutors deep in discussion at the photography exhibition. Amano has spotted me and Yiann adds a wonderful splash of colour in the background.

Unlike the simple layout of the photography gallery, the main exhibition was a highly directed and organised affair - you were led through a series of displays and roomsets differentiated by light and sound and colour. Think dark walls (mostly) offset by pools of light, neon signs and and bright displays. Sadly I can't show you this as photography wasn't allowed in the main exhibition.

The first section concentrated largely on architecture and the design of furniture and household objects. Some of the buildings borrowed design elements from objects and some of the objects looked like small buildings - Aldo Rossi's Tea and Coffee Piazza for Alessi being an example of this trend. Looking round the opening rooms I was struck by the absense of natural forms or bodies - by a hard-edged artificial feeling. A quote by Italian designer Ettore Sottsass showed me that this is not accidental. "I want to make myself a filling pump where I can fill up forever on 4-star fuel, fill up my veins and set them alight." Postmodern design, as exemplified by its major architects and product designers, is characterised by a love of glossy surface and limited reference to natural forms.

What's the point?
Frankly, although interesting on an intellectual level, I don't like mainstream postmodern architecture or design much more after seeing the exhibition than I did before. One of the maquettes of a building complex struck me as rather unnattractive and not the sort of place I would like to spend time in. I was most diverted when reading the accompanying text to discover that the architect of the Tsukuba Centre in Ibaraki felt the same way. His design (with clear classical references) was described as "historicism as protest" and was accompanied by a drawing showing the complex in ruins being reclaimed by nature. He accepted the commission of course.

In discussion Gareth suggested that liking a place or design was really not the point of the post-modern, which starts by assuming that progress is impossible and perhaps a presumption that the only way to be intellectually honest is not to pretend that your motives are honourable or honest. Irony and an awareness of the past (which almost by definition has passed and fallen into decay, showing the pointlessness of our efforts) are shown in extensive copying and referencing of earlier works. Key design group, Studio Alchymia announed an intention to occupy "a state of waste, of disciplinary, dimensional and conceptual indifference".

The main innovators in the postmodern school of architecture were Robert Venturi and his wife and partner Denise Scott Brown. Much influenced by the colour and liveliness of the Las Vegas strip and city edges with their highways and posters and literal 'edginess', they set out to prioritise "messy vitality over obvious unity" - not attempting to synthesize their references and details into a homogenous style. Their architectural drawings as shown in the exhibition seemed to me to live up to that ideal in their use of collaged photos and reference material to make striking and lively images. I do not see the same vitality in their buildings - I think there is a difference between decoration and fussy detail and genuine interest and liveliess in a building or facade and for me the buildings fall on the wrong side of that equation. Terry Farrell's grandiose London buildings are for me a monument to the worst excesses of the designer decade of the 80s.

Of course this isn't a new criticism of postmodern architecture. The curators seem to me to be recognising a certain gap in achievement in their own reflection on this era. They say that "Postmodernism lived up to its central aim - to replace a monolithic idion with a plurality of competing styles." As with the name of the movement itself this comment is about a reaction towards and against other styles rather than the creation of truly great interesting or original works in their own right.

The 1980s
The exhibition then led us to the 1980s, when postmodern design became part of the cultural mainstream. This section of the exhibition showed clothes, film and performance clips, music tracks and videos, and then moved on to graphic design in magazines and photography. To my eyes there was much more here that was alive and vital than in the sterile designer products and buildings. Reference to previous periods and styles, and the process of making art itself, continue to be seen in these works, but messy reality - bodies and torn clothes and natural forms - are seen alongside glossy idealised shapes. We saw people playing with ideas of identity, mixing styles and idioms and playing with the natural and artificial in ways that truly were different from previous periods - see the selection of postcards above. These included a hologram image of Boy George, a post-punk Vivian Westwood ensemble from her 'Punkature' collection, a New Order album cover drawing heavily from a still life painting and the incomparable Leigh Bowery at home in one of his typical costumes.

The work (typography, design, photography) shown in magazines such as i-D and the Face was fascinating, complex and very alive, in my eyes at least. Shown alongside work by art photographers Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince it was clear that the commercial designers were playing with cultural norms and notions of identity just as the artists were. The curators noted that at this period just as designers moved towards art, artists in turn became influenced by design and pop culture. Cindy Sherman referenced iconic film stills and similar pop cultural icons in her exploration of identity and the role of women, while commercial photographers and designers subverted the glossy suface of their magazines while updating ideas of sex, fashion and beauty. Works by Duane Michals and Helmut Newton were paired - it would be difficult to look at those without context and say with any confidence which piece was by the fine artist and which by the commercial photographer.

I found it strange to see an era that I lived through laid out in a museum as a historical period. Seeing the exhibition pulled together some threads and helped me see the period in a different light.

Exit to shop
The final section of the exhibition became much darker and less exuberant. Low lighting and subdued music reflected the decline of postmodernism, seduced by money. We are told that "many post-modernists participated enthusiastically in a culture obssessed with wealth and status. Postmodernism collapsed under the weight of its own success." We were led towards the exit by a large neon sign in the shape of an arrow pointing us towards the exhibition shop.

By the time we got to the photography exhibition I was surfeited with information and ideas. Here follow a few short notes on works I found particularly interesting.

The opening piece was a fascinating picture by David Hockney, combining photography with a painting of the photographed image of sunflowers - all ultimately referencing Van Gogh. Lots of ideas, references and reflection in that one. I also enjoyed Helen Chadwick's momumemntal mother and child very much indeed. I took a picture of that and will try to get permission to post it. Again the image used a variety of materials and references, reworking iconic Madonna and Child images with Chadwick's own interest in the body (inside and outside) and representation of women and identity. A fasinating piece. It was a treat to see Keith Arnatt's 'Canned Sunset' in real. Calum Colvin's 'Untitled 3' showed a constructed scene which played with our ability to distinguish what was real and what was not. I liked Marcel Broodhaers' 'La Soupe de Daguerre' a set of small picture of vegetables making a deconstructed soup with reference to Daguerrotypes. Finally Clare Strand's 'Signs of a struggle' series used framing and writing on the images to make them look like scene of crime pictures - a reflection on how we read photographs and a great example of effective staging of work for exhbition, so that each part of the experience of viewing the pictures reinforced the central idea, playing with illusion/reality in a way that perfectly crowned the postmodern experience.

As always, much time was spent getting to know other students, tutors and OCA staff, and talking through our experiences of the exhibition and being a student at OCA. Here are a few snaps to record what for me is one of the best parts of the study day experience.

Catherine outside the V&A at the start of the day - note the OCA badge

Anne (Anned) in reflective mood

Dorothy observing (she is making a quick sketch of Peter)

Dorothy's sketch


  1. Really interesting post; I struggle to understand Post-modernism, probably because I find it's cynical take on things quite alienating. I must try to get to this exhibition and see if it helps. Love your people shots - that's a lovely one of Catherine.

  2. I really wanted to go to this exhibition with the college group, but by the time I tried the places had all gone. I fell (quite sure really) that I would have gained by attending with the college, to be able to discuss the exhibits. Nevertheless I went a few weeks ago and have written about it in my blog. I did the "tour" in reverse, I went straight for the photography and came away quite inspired by them. However I became quite cynical quite quickly with the main hall. I'm still not sure that there is a core movement in "Post Modernism", rather a motley collection of artists riding on the economic boom of the eighties and nineties. But it was colourful and did contain some very interesting pieces. I was interested in your view that didn't seem a million miles from my own. It will be interesting for me to see how others viewed it. John

  3. Love Dorothy's sketch of Peter! I enjoyed the exhibition; and the 'plurality' of it; but like you Eileen, I was suffering rom sensory overload by the time I got to the photography exhibition. Think maybe John did it the right way round!

    You have made some interesting points for me to ponder Eileen—thank you!!