How can you describe something when you accept that writing is lies, that individual creativity is a dead, bourgeois concept and that everything has already been said? Here is one attempt.
London‘s Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. The exhibition includes works by Ron Arad, Hans Hollein, Andy Warhol, and Robert Longo. Much of the design of the show takes its inspiration from the styles of 1970s New Wave, which originated in the United Kingdom. One aspect of the notoriously hard-to define notion of the “postmodern” is a collage of cultures and styles; the fact that the exhibit is being held in such a large, cosmopolitan city seems fitting for this kind of art, which more often than not is done with a street-smart air or at least a wink and a smile. I’ll be looking at a few of the works from the exhibit that particularly reference postmodern theory.
How is this coterie of art and video projects considered postmodern? Is it merely many things brought from one climate to another to make a group of things unrelated to the climate at hand, (if you will?) A specific definition of postmodernism as a concept has been difficult to nail down, but the curators of the exhibit felt the movement was a “visually thrilling, a multifaceted style that ranged from the colorful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.”
Poststructuralist theorist Fredric Jameson has described postmodernist art as being “about art itself in a new kind of way; even more, [postmodernist art] means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.” Postmodern art uses appropriation, irony, collage, and pastiche (which Jameson describes as “blank parody.”) Instead of trying to discover hidden truths or reveal master dialogues, it focuses on the image for the image’s sake.
Cinzia Ruggeri’s Homage to Levi-Strauss (1983-4), one of the works in the exhibit, is reproduced on a life-like mannequin, revealing the quintessentially theatrical 80’s hair and new wave makeup that adorned the real-life model in the original image. The deep green dress features a geometric design similar to a step ladder. The structure of the design is deliberate but asymmetrical, uniting the binaries of the smooth and the jagged. Claude Levi-Strauss has been dubbed the father of modern anthropology and made a career out of applying an analysis of binary oppositions and Saussurian structuralism to anthropology in an attempt to explain universal human characteristics as rooted in mental myths and patterns. He felt that becoming aware of the social structures surrounding these myths would ultimately lead to more of an understanding. The woman in the original photo stands with arms outstretched –not quite posing like Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (and therefore bypassing artistic tradition,) but just enough to make her appear as a human case study. The model is frozen, devoid of history, and punctuated in Technicolor—she becomes a type of post-punk, transcendental signifier.
If you ever wanted to make your tea time feel a bit more hyper-real, the Mickey Mouse Gourmet Collection (1991) tea kettle by Michael Graves, another work in the exhibition, might be a good item to add to your shopping list. The reflective, stainless steel surface precedes that of another infamous postmodern work, Rabbit by Jeff Koons, from 2003. Not only do you get Mickey Mouse with this tea kettle, you get back a piece of yourself via your reflection, making it impossible to separate the real and the imaginary. Mickey and Disney are attractive because we believe they are imaginary, but just real enough to fluff up the grand narrative pillows that cushion our thoughts. One enters Disneyland accepting its illusions, but not realizing that the only illusion is the one that says: “real life is different from what I can experience here.”
Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, writes, “the Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.”
The Graves design can be practically used for high tea, but symbolically, it represents mass culture and mass consumption. The piece reflects back on the reality of the controlled infantilism and the useful delusions that make up our lives as adults living in a Capitalist paradise.
Ai Weiwei’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo, (1994) unites the timeless binaries of the old and the new. V&A curator Glenn Adamson writes, “The urn itself is likely to be a fake…[Weiwei] buys the urns in street markets in Beijing, so they are more likely to be fake than not. This uncertainty is part of the piece’s content.”
The fact that the urn is likely not an “authentic” Han Dynasty urn plays with the notions of authenticity and value. As Adamson explains, the Ai Weiwei urn is more valuable than the Han Dynasty urn, which, we are to infer, should look about the same. To revisit Baudrillard, the urn is like an Egyptian mummy in a certain respect: “Ramses does not signify anything for us, only the mummy is of an inestimable worth because it is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning.”
But what then do we make of the addition of the Coca-Cola logo to this authentic/inauthentic artifact? Postmodern art superstar Andy Warhol can shed some light on this for us: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good”
Is Weiwei’s urn the same as all others or is it better because of a notable and moneyed trace (i.e his name?) How can you tell, and would it matter if you could? What do we call it when we can’t tell where advertising ends and real life begins? What about when low culture helps prop up high culture? Hegel would call it aufheben, Castelli would call it pop art. Is it the essence of synthesis or an element of pluralism when an Italian fashion designer considers theory as well as textile? I’ll (naturally) leave these and all other questions which may arise open to your interpretation.