Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Last chance to see

So I finally went to see the V+A's Post Modernism exhibition just a week or two before it closes, which is ironic (ho ho) given the amount of time I've spent talking about the whole thing over the last few months. After two launch events for Radical Post Modernism and various talks, reviews, articles and twitter based exchanges, the whole po-mo jamboree seems to be finally leaving town, a few fake porticoes and Doric columns left lying in the dust behind it.  

The exhibition itself was a bit of a disappointment, a strange and oddly empty experience after all the preamble. It started off OK with flickering neons and images of burning chairs but it lost track halfway through and had completely petered out by the end. The best section, perhaps for obvious reasons, was the architecture room where the design of the exhibition and the material in it seemed to work together, reinforcing some of the movements formal and conceptual themes. The diagonal cut back at the end of the first room quoted the kind of spatial distortions employed by Venturi, Moore etc to smart effect. It turned out to be the exhibitions most knowing and confident moment, a point where the curators seemed to agree on what they were curating and why it might be interesting.

After the architecture room came another one almost entirely devoted to Memphis, the Italian avant-garde group of designers and architects. I'm a big fan of Memphis but in this context you only need to see one or two garishly patterned Formica coffee tables to get the point. And then came a room looking at pop music decorated with scaffolding and chain-link fencing like the sort of 1980's nightclub frequented by Molly Ringwould. This seemed both painfully literal and inexplicably naff after the clever spatialities of the first room. No excuses about post modernism being about bad taste will wash. This was sincere enough even though it was purportedly talking about manufactured images and unstable identities.

After this there was the brief respite of Factory records and Vaughn Oliver (and the happy surprise of coming across those fabulous old album sleeves) and then tea pots, tea pots and more tea pots. By this point it seemed like someone had merely dragged the Design Museum back to its original home. Nothing, not even New Order's sublime Bizarre Love Triangle could redeem the slow fizzle of the exhibition and I wandered out into the inevitable gift shop puzzled by what had been included and why. 

Surely confusion is the most post modern thing of all though? Well, no not really. I don't hold with the 'it's-all-relative-innit?" school of shoulder shrugging po-mo and I see no reason why the story should be harder to tell than previous ones on Cold War Modernism or the Arts and Crafts. Perhaps eager to avoid too much 'bad' '80's architecture, the V+A felt they had to reach out to more respectable cultural objects. Hence diversions into (of all people) Annie Lennox, but nothing on genuine forefathers like Richard Hamilton and very little on Post Modern theory or its literary/theoretical cultural output. 

Perhaps they were right too. So many of the reviewers of the exhibition admitted to dislike or even revulsion at the objects on display. But are those Memphis coffee tables really so shocking? Or even Terry Farrel's TV-AM, a building which strikes me as far less nauseous than any number of contemporary warehouse conversions (and just look at its intended replacement).  I've written before about knee-jerk misunderstandings of architectural post modernism but is it so hard to look at, say, the model of the Vanna Venturi House and not see a smart, sophisticated piece of architecture? How weak stomached do you have to be to be offended by a stuck on dado rail especially when it means you entirely overlook the thing it's stuck on to?

So, I left the exhibitions confused about all the fuss. Yeah, I know (Alessi) kettles and pots and all that but the interesting questions remain unanswered. Style and Substance concentrated instead on the objects and cultural fluff of the 1980's. It treated po-mo as a momentary lapse of taste, an over-stuffed interregnum before the proper business of modernism continued. Whilst comforting to some this reading is highly problematic, not least because it fails to use or even acknowledge any of the lessons learnt along the way. Not only does such a reading ignore the important developments initiated by post modernism - an awareness of the role of taste and class, a willingness to open up architecture to other disciplines, a critical re-reading of the architectural canon itself - but it allows modernism to return minus its social and political conviction. A modernism, in short, eviscerated of cultural content and prissily obsessed with refining its own limited stylistic vocabulary. What kind of victory is this?

Post modernism isn't the inevitable bedfellow of neo-liberalism of popular demonology, as both Kester Rattenbury and myself attempted to point out in our essays in Radical Post Modernism. Confining its influence almost entirely to the 1980's leads to the conclusion that po-mo is inseparable from the politics of Reagan and Thatcher.  To conflate it with neo-liberalism is a classic case of shooting the messenger. As this otherwise unrelated article attests, nothing invites post modern scepticism more than its complete disavowal. 

Post modernism's really interesting developments occurred in the late '60's and early '70's when it engaged explicitly with social and cultural issues and was still attempting to revitalise modernism rather than deny its relevance. The importance of post modernism today - beyond a recherche parlour game of perverser-than-thou taste - lies in exploring the avenues it opened up beyond modernism, rather than a return to pre-modernism. For that reason, historicism is probably its least interesting contribution. I don't have a problem in using historical forms in order to break out of modernism's more repressive stylistic constraints but it also leads to the new orthodoxy of AndrĂ©s Duany and co. Likewise, post modern urbanism is far more useful as an explosive critique of masterplanning than as an excuse for the spatial monotony of New Urbanism.

All museums are full of dead things so perhaps one shouldn't accuse the V+A of petrifying its subject. This is a historical show and its aim is not to signpost the future or make polemical statements. Having said all that it also feels like time to move on, start reading and writing about something else on this site. Having been half-jokingly invited to explore something called Opulent Neo-Victorian Socialist Realism I think I might actually be heading the other way, to neo-rationalism, Manfredo Tafuri and Rossi at his most miserable. Sounds fun I know. Happy new year. 

1 comment:

AM said...

Looking forward to read you on your most rational-depressive.
“Good” Po-Mo knows how really miserable most architecture is now.
(Sorry for switching from New Order to The Smiths.)