There’s beauty but no peace in the V&A’s sparse but pointed exhibition on postmodernism’s photographic legacy. Even when there are no obvious signs of the aforementioned struggle, you worry: is there an aggressor hiding behind a silver gelatin bush, about to jump out and bite you? And if so, who or what is it? The images are bathed in anxiety like a developing image in its chemical bath, and that goes for the digital prints, too.
There’s no safety anywhere. Not in nature: David Hockney’s painted sunflowers sit beside the real thing, which aren’t real, of course, but 16 years dead; Marcel Broodthaers’s tomatoes are no more edible than his illustrated fish – thanks to the inventor of the camera, it’s all a ‘Soupe de Daguerre’.
Sex isn’t safe, either: Sarah Charlesworth’s shiny, laminated diptych of found images, one a phallic statue, the other a garden seen through a keyhole, casts doubts on every kind of reproduction.
None of this is subtle. But Richard Prince’s grainily handsome shots of cowboys, nicked from advertising (think Marlboro. Oh, you were) or Cindy Sherman’s sneak peak at a shifty-looking blonde, presumably hiding from the camera – except that she is, as usual, Sherman – layer the problems like sediment.
If artists can no longer promise us reality, then what are they showing us, and where has reality sidled off to while we’re trying to figure that out? It would all be even more nerve-racking if the images weren’t so beautiful. Gazing at James Casebere’s ‘Golden Apple’, a photograph of a sculpture on a lightbox that is luminous in every sense, despite being neither golden nor, really, an apple, it is possible to stop struggling for meaning and just lap up the loveliness. Postmodernism isn’t restful, but it does have its moments.