University of Brighton / Faculty of Arts Graphic Design / Illustration Level 4 Cultural and Critical Studies / Essay on Postmodernism Exhibition @V&A Hand in date: Monday 5 Dec. 2011 Proofread by Patrick Colgan
Postmodernism (or Grouping Unrelated Movements)
by Con Chrisoulis
Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, taking place from the 24th of September 2011 until the 15th of January 2011. The exhibition itself is organised by the V&A Museum and is supported by the Friends of the V&A, while Barclays Private Wealth Management has sponsored and funded it.
The V&A Museum curation team of Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt and many other staff members of the museum began working with outside design firms and 3D architects in order to conceptualise, design and materialise the exhibition. Being organised by one of London’s biggest museums, whilst simultaneously receiving sponsorship and promotion by a leading UK bank, meant that the exhibition would receive great media attention thus inviting every member of the public to view the retrospective event. The aim of the exhibition is to gather works of art from 1970 until 1990 that have been classified by the museum as Post-Modern and examine their origins and impact on popular culture.
The V&A’s major autumn exhibition is the first in-depth survey of art, design and architecture of the 1970s and 1980s, examining one of the most controversial phenomena in recent art and design history: Postmodernism. It shows how Postmodernism evolved from a provocative architectural movement in the early 1970s and rapidly went on to influence all areas of popular culture including art, film, music, graphics and fashion (About Us page, Barclays Wealth web).
While most art critics and historians agree on the fact that Postmodernism cannot be defined (Sim VII), one of the major assumptions that have been made by the museum during the showcase of the exhibition is that a style and movement emerged during this era, no matter how diverse and unrelated these styles were between themselves.
Postmodernism was an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical. It was visually thrilling, a multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious. (Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, The Victoria and Albert Museum web)
The debate on whether or not Postmodernism was a movement has continued for years and a single objective definition will most probably never be agreed upon.
Any reference to the term ‘postmodernism’ immediately exposes one to the risk of being accused of jumping on a bandwagon, of perpetuating a rather shallow and meaningless intellectual fad. One of the problems is that the term is at once fashionable yet irritatingly elusive to define. (Featherstone 1)
Therefore, however undefinable Postmodernism might be as term, the V&A Museum made a great effort to begin categorising it and what they deemed as its many subdivisions, by mounting large explanatory signs at every corner of the exhibition, contradicting their own official introductions and explanations, which were published in the press or online, that Postmodernism is undefinable.
Thus movements that were independent and unrelated to each other, like Neo-Eclectic architecture and the UK Punk scene, which were individually influential enough to deserve an exhibition dedicated solely to them, suddenly found themselves under one common umbrella and term, which is Postmodernism. When a thorough examination on the term begins, the researcher quickly realises that in fact no artist ever defined him self as Post-Modern during this era; they did however define themselves as Punks, New Wavers, etc., which were social and art movements that had all the characteristics that compromise such movements (i.e. large informal groupings of individuals focused on political or social issues with a common philosophy or goals). Therefore the major problem that arises from the V&A’s exhibition is the fact that it is presented as a movement or a mass scale art scene, when in fact it is merely a collection of many unrelated and sometimes conflicting movements that indeed made an impact during this era. In that sense, even though there seems to be a connection gap between the exhibited pieces, aesthetically they were chosen wisely, in a crowd-pleasing way, as the curators managed to place in the same room a houndstooth suit worn by 1980s pop superstar The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and a patent leather tuxedo worn by flaying New Wave tenor, Klaus Nomi.
Therefore, when Barclays Private Wealth Management refers to their sponsored exhibition as “the first in-depth survey of art, design and architecture of the 1970s and 1980s” (About Us page, Barclays Wealth web) the general public will have no problem in digesting the information, loosely connecting the artists and placing aside any intellectually demanding notions of undefinable movements.
One exhibit that particularly expressed the above problematic of grouping and exploiting unrelated objects and movements was a short projection of the introduction of the breakthrough science fiction motion picture Blade Runner, in conjunction with the display of two costumes that were used in its production.
Taken out of context from a whole, inseparable piece of art, any single fragment can be dissected and placed in a very different category, if the curator or art critic chooses so. How can a single head from Pablo Picasso’s Guernica be separated and displayed under any other frame of reference than that which the artist deemed it for, which is the depiction of the horrors of civil war and fratricide? Sadly, such is the case with Blade Runner, where 20 seconds of the film’s intro is cutoff from the rest of its context and projected on a huge screen, while close by two very unique costumes that were used in the film are displayed, cutoff also from all the 1930s-styled suits, ties and hats worn by the cast and especially the protagonist.
The film, for fans and critics alike, has been classified as Tech-Noir (or Science Fiction Noir) and the intention of both the scriptwriter and the director was to explicitly pay homage to classic noir films and literature, but with a futuristic twist. In fact, Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was the basis of the film, had set out to write a noir detective story, albeit set in the future, after being told that this was impossible. The genre has existed for decades prior to the exhibition’s retrospective or what is deemed as Postmodernism. Both post-apocalyptic worlds with industrialised buildings and fiery smokestacks can be found in George Orwell’s 1984 (written in 1948) or Isaac Asimov’s 1950s Science Fiction Noir books. They are so common in the genre that it has almost become passe to use them in the narrative these days.
The filmmakers hasten to point out, all the futuristic trappings are a backdrop for the detective story. They exist in what (director Ridley) Scott calls “a familiar atmosphere …a Philip Marlowe-Sam Spade environment. This is a film set forty years hence, made in the style forty years ago.” (Scroggy 3)
In the projection at the V&A, a camera pans over a post-apocalyptic, almost mechanical, world, where fires are expelled through smokestacks, while an eerie electronic soundtrack looms over the depiction this doomed city. ￼
Fig. 1. Video still from the opening scene of Blade Runner, as projected at the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition.
The scenery, depicted solely to familiarise the audience with the time era and cityscape (of Los Angeles circa 2019) is rarely used in the film again and shortly after the introduction the movie is almost entirely shot indoors in a very film noir atmosphere, usually involving a detective interrogating a femme fatale type that chain smokes in a darkened room. ￼
Fig. 2. Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan’s costumes for Zhora (left) and Rachel (right) from the film Blade Runner, as exhibited at the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition and drawn by Con Chrisoulis.
Similarly, the costumes from the movie that were showcased at the exhibition were two minor outfits that were shot in the film for a few minutes and stood out from the regular cast’s costumes, especially Zhora’s transparent raincoat and her knee-high S&M boots, which were worn by a “Replicant”, a subhuman species that wore Punk-inspired apparel; one could say that the film almost vilified what Punk stood for, as the opponents of the clean-cut human race are all shown having bleached blonde hair and wearing a similar bondage-type uniform. Therefore, not only was the Punk look re-appropriated by the curators in a doubtful manner and placed under the glorifying Post-Modern banner, but they equally misinterpreted Punk philosophy and appearance.
Another one of the major problems that occurred whence facing such challenges as the one the curators posed to the public is presenting a major mainstream hollywood film as part of a larger underground movement, which is the appeal that the exhibition was trying to spread. In actuality, Blade Runner cost the production company 28 Million US Dollars to create, in 1982, and ended up with only 32 Million US Dollars earnings leading it to become one of the biggest box-office failures of the year. The fact that the movie ended up with what today is misappropriately called as a cult audience, which lead to a far greater, even legendary, status does not alter the producers’ original intention, which was to earn profit from a potential blockbuster. Moreso, the film’s director was Ridley Scott, who had just recently scored a major success with the first Alien (1979) movie and he personally chose Harrison Ford, star of Star Wars (1977) and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc (1982), as the movie’s protagonist. Blade Runner therefore could not have been less grassroots or underground than any mainstream movie created today, starring a best-selling star of our times and using cutting edge, yet terribly expensive, technology to realise the special effects.
In conclusion, the constant re-appropriation of grassroots movements from official organisations and especially state driven museums funded by major banks will almost always deliver a watered down version and definition of these movements, if not gross misinformation regarding their content and intention. The case may be so for the Postmodernism: Styles and Subversion 1970-1990 exhibition; alas as no one has self defined himself as a Post-Modernist in order to agree or disagree with the above assumption or the exhibition’s content at all, it’s quite possible that the unaware visiting public shall never find out or, more appropriately, be defined the truth.
About Us page. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. London: Barclays Wealth, 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. http://www.barclayswealth.com/about-us/sponsorship/uk/postmodernism.htm
Adams, Tim. “Is Postmodernism Gaga, Warhol or a wooden toaster? Time to find out…” The Guardian. The Guardian Online, 24 Sep. 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982. DVD.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007. DVD. (University of Brighton Library Control Number M0038120BN)
Britt, David. Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0500238413)
Bukatman, Scott. Blade Runner (BFI Modern Classics). London: British Film Institute, 1997. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0851706231)
Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan’s costumes for Zhora (left) and Rachel (right) from the film Blade Runner, as exhibited at the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition. Personal pencil sketch by Konstantinos Chrisoulis. 17 Nov. 2011.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Panther, 1972. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0586036059)
Dick, Philip K. and Parker, Tony. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Comic Book. Los Angeles : Boom! Studios 1-24 (2010-2011). Print.
Esteva, Gustavo. Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. London : Zed Books, 1998. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 1856495450)
Featherstone, Mike. Consumer Culture and Postmodernism. Los Angeles, Calif.; London : Sage, 2007. Electronic Book. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0803984146)
Harrison, Sylvia. Pop Art and the Origins of Post-Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0521791154)
Jencks, Charles. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-Modernism Going? Chichester : Wiley, 2007. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 0470030100)
Jencks, Charles. What is Post-Modernism? London: Academy Editions, 1996. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 1854904280)
Kerman, Judith B. Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Bowling Green, Ohio : Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number M0006826BN)
Neumann, Dietrich. Film Architecture: Set Designs from “Metropolis” to “Blade Runner”. Munich, New York : Prestel , 1996. Print. (University of Brighton Library Control Number 3791316052)
On The Edge Of Blade Runner. Presented by Mark Kermode. UK : Nobles Gate Scotland for Channel 4, 2000. VHS. (University of Brighton Library Control Number M0009264LI)
Scroggy, David. Blade Runner Sketchbook. San Diego: Blue Dolphin Enterprises, 1982. Print. Sim, Stuart. The Routledge Companion To Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.