It’s unusual for an exhibition to be so full of disappointing works, and forthe engaging ones to be so unsympathetically displayed, yet for it still to create a degree of intellectual satisfaction. If nothing else, the V&A’s show suggests that postmodernism only really worked as an idea, and that ideas don’t necessarily have to be good to be interesting.
The material products of this phenomenon dominate here; which figures, since materiality in both the sense of what things are made of, and how an idea of their worth changes the way things look, lay at the very heart of postmodernism. It does mean, though, that there are a lot of architectural models and drawings, and a lot of hideous coffee pots to get through. The most interesting of the former, from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, BEST projects and Ricardo Bofill (whose Espaces d’Abraxas housing project looks like the ‘Mansions of the Gods’ from Asterix), show a breaking apart of modernist certainties and an embracing of Vegas and Vietnam, vernacular Am-glam and kitschy classicism. The latter, by and large, suggest a kind of aggressive macho whimsy, typified by the Italian Memphis group, who really nailed the primary-coloured, impractically shaped domestic object.
Simply put, the convergence of these two strands ultimately defeated postmodernism. Two rooms and 20 years on, and Venturi and Scott Brown are also designing crockery. Meanwhile, a photo from the mid-’80s shows ’60s enfant terrible and Memphis big wheel Ettore Sottsass, greyly moustached and pullovered, posing self-consciously on a boxing-ring bed with a lot of much younger people.
A downside of dealing with the manifestations rather than the theory is that there is a lot of stuff in this show whose inclusion seems iffy. With its acquisitive bent, postmodernism lends itself to the ‘things-that-look-a bit-like-other-things’ school of curatorial taxonomy. Ron Arad’s ‘Concrete Stereo’ (1983) and Bill Woodrow’s ‘Twin-tub with Guitar’ (1981) seem to owe more to Arte Povera and the grubby ’60s assemblages of Ed Kienholz or Robert Rauschenberg than being part of a paradigm shift in aesthetic values.
Elsewhere, a pair of Technics decks used by Grandmaster Flash in the late ’70s have an undeniable totemic presence – their casings chipped and scored, the on-off knob of one stuck down with gaffer tape – but their cultural significance is so tangible that it comprehensively destroys the already shaky argument being made here for hip-hop being postmodernism’s natural soundtrack. If it had one it was opera: stagey, artificial, expensive, remote and anti-populist.
Although there is some intriguing and hilarious footage of German operatic pasticheur and club crossover artist Klaus Nomi, the reciprocal influence of postmodern theory and big-buck, corporately endorsed ‘high art’ – opera, theatre, ballet – isn’t properly explored by this show, which is a real shortcoming. TV, club culture, gay culture and advertising also receive scant attention, suggesting that postmodernism’s profit-motivated burning of its bridges was instrumental in its fall from grace.
Perhaps this show should have been called ‘Postmodernism: A Warning from History’: an object lesson in what happens when you remove rules then try and re-impose them, something its practitioners seemed appropriately to have picked up from financial markets. But to have created even a semi-coherent show out of its self-doubting vagaries is something of an achievement