Exhibition Review: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Grace Jones maternity dress, 1979. Photo: Jean-Paul Goude

Visit the exhibition webpage for the V&A’s current blockbuster exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, and you might be surprised and excited (as I was) to find New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle, video blaring out at you. Postmodernism is the latest in the V&A’s series of comrehensive exhibition’s devoted to design movements, and in this case, the attempt to sum up a characteristically undefinable epoch of creative production is a clear challenge. Featuring works of architecture, product, graphic, fashion and costume design, as well as jewelry, furniture, video, and fine art, the galleries become a hyper-designed space full of hyper-designed artifacts.

In the introductory text to the exhibition (which like most of the text panels is printed on a lightbox fashioned out of neon colored plexiglass) the curators describe postmodernism as possessing an ‘unstable mix of the theatrical and the theoretical,’ resulting in a style that could be at once ‘ludicrous and luxurious…sometimes confrontational and occasionally absurd.’ This and other well crafted text panels provided words of guidance to the visitor, and clever summations of a complex web of creative production in somewhat recent memory. However, the exhibition as a whole, seemed to prove that the very nature of postmodernism insists that it can not be characterised by any object or group of objects, and the experience of the worlds of art and design from 1970-1990 can not really be recreated in a museum.

Design rendering for the exhibition, from V&A Making Postmodernism blog

However, the attempt to begin to curate postmodernism is a worthy one, and interesting to present at this moment, when many of the visitors will likely have resonant memories of the decades covered, and probably even have a few magazines or album covers at home that are included in the exhibit, like Joy Division and Bauhaus album covers or back issues of i-D. In the sense that it is amusing to revisit moments in one’s own life span, the show is a crowd pleaser. For those who were born in the 1990s and after, the exhibit will likely conjure nostalgic desire for a time they missed out on. In a sense, what is so alluring about the exhibition, is that in highlighting the witty, clever and memorable aspects of postmodern design, it largely omits discussion of the underlying socio-political milieu of the epoch. The V&A is, first and foremost a design museum, but in the case of postmodernism, it feels superficial to bombard us with the colourful and the shiny, while leaving off the darkness behind the circus.  The exhibit’s penultimate gallery, dedicated to money as a driving and destroying force of postmodernism acknowledges the economic climate, but acts only to highlight the lack of mention of political events, the AIDS crisis, drug cultures and the rise of digital technology, among other topics.

Installation view of the 'club' gallery

In its section on performance and persona subtitled, Strike a Pose,the exhibit acknowledges the role of art directors, drag queens, pop stars, partygoers and poseurs as authors of ‘some of postmodernism’s most influential style statements,’ and unsurprisingly this gallery featured the most clothing. In a space designed to look like a set from Bladerunner and a warehouse nightclub, video screens play a myriad of music videos and film clips alongside mannequins wearing the largely self-fashioned costumes of performers including Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, Devo, Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi.

Klaus Nomi wearing the patent leather tuxedo on display in the exhibition

Klaus Nomi wearing one of two outfits featured in the exhibition

”]Most of the costumes are displayed far above eye level on mezzanine level platforms, creating a sense of worship and smallness in the viewer, which seemed entirely out of sync with the notion of the 1970s and 80s a time where everyone was fabulous.



Stephen Jones at the Blitz Club, 1980

It would have been nice to see some footage of anonymous partygoers at the Blitz, Taboo or Kinky Gerlinky, a few of London’s infamous clubs of the era.

Karole Armitage costume featured in the exhibition: in a performance photograph and during installtion at the V&A

Some lesser known performance costumes were included, like those of Karole Armitage, the “punk ballerina,” and Japanese dancer Ono Kazuo, but overall, the pop star gallery felt a little bit too much like the Hard Rock Cafe.

Other than the ensembles in Strike a Pose, there were disappointingly few other fashion items on display, and their insertion throughout the exhibition rarely made a clear correlation between fashion design and other media. The first clothing presented is an ensemble from Vivienne Westwood’s Punkature Collection of 1983, labelled as a ‘subversion of 1980s power dressing,’ for its haphazard layering and mix of references and textures. The skirt features images from Bladerunner, which is referenced incessantly throughout the exhibit as the postmodern film par excellence.

Vivienne Westwood Punkature ensemble on the catwalk (1983) and during installation at the V&A

Alongside the Westwood outfit is an early ensemble by Rei Kawakubo for Commes des Garcons consisting of a monochromatic oversized black sweater and skirt. This exemplifies the look of the designer’s work and its contrast to the playful and colorful design of the 1980s, but what is really clever about the presentation is that the mannequin is posed in a crouching position to recreate a 1982 editorial photograph of the dress. I did wish the photo had been displayed along with the objects, and generally felt that links and references across design disciplines could have been better illustrated.

“]Cinzia Ruggeri’s Homage to Levi-Strauss dress (a/w 1983-84) is the exhibit’s most dazzling fashion statement, and its placement and mounting on a mannequin with elaborately styled hair is a true high point of the exhibition. You can see  process photographs of this and other costumes being mounted on the V&A’s behind the scenes and curatorial blog, entitled Designing Postmodernism. This dress, acquired by the V&A for the exhibition, features a structured ziggurat style collar and skirt extension, and feels comfortable alongside exhibits of the work of Memphis and Studio Alchimia.  The prevalence of the step-like ziggurat form in postmodern design was visible throughout the exhibit, from the very first moment when we are greeted by Alessandro Mendini’s Lassu chair, to Devo’s red plastic “energy dome” helmets, to a host of other designs in which the step or zigzag are structural or design elements.




Members of Devo wearing their iconic "energy dome" helmets

Karl Lagerfeld in his Monte Carlo Memphis-furnished apartment, 1981. Photograph by Jacques Schumacher

Another subtle highlight of the exhibition for me in terms of fashion and postmodern living was a photograph of Karl Lagerfeld in his Memphis designed apartment by Jacques Schumacher. Lagerfeld’s 1991 sequined Chanel suit is also displayed as an illustration of the postmodern reworking and iconoclasm inherent in his interpretation of the classic and comparatively minimal Chanel tailleur.

One of the text panels proclaimed that postmodernism’s aim was to ‘replace a monolithic idiom with a plurality of competing ideas and styles.’ This satisfying and concise mission statement for the movement could also have served as a warning to the exhibition’s creators. The museum exhibition, especially in the context of the V&A, is a monolithic idiom – or at least attempts to create a monolithically informative experience . With a multitude of selected objects on display, and a somewhat random succession of presentation, the exhibition illustrates its own handicap as a selection of things which may or may not define a movement which defied definition. Unfortunately perhaps, exhibitions such as this one can come to define movements, styles and moments in time.  Hopefully, like the ziggurat shape so integral to postmodern design, this exhibition will be a mere first step to addressing the complexities and indeed the absurdities of postmodernism and its artifacts.

In the final gallery of the exhibition, New Order’s video for Bizarre Love Triangle plays on a large screen in a small room, alongside the exhibit’s final message to visitors borrowed from the maxims of postmodernism: ‘Read theory, buy things, style yourself, be subversive – or just get up and dance.’ Yes, yes, I thought, to hell with it all, I just want to get out of the museum and go dancing to some 80s pop. The whole day I had been secretly harbouring the hope the the exhibit would actually comprise a dance space, but in predictably postmodern fashion – the gallery exit doors were merely the entrance to the gift shop, where we can pick and choose commodities to define ourselves from amongst a space of commerce and desire.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion runs until January 15, 2011.

A variety of events, lectures and participatory activieties have been organised in conjunction with the exhibition. A full program of events can be viewed here.

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1 Comment

  • Monica Sklar October 12, 2011 10.25 am

    I would LOVE to be able to go to this. It’s right up my alley! Thanx Jenna for the great post.


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