Why can’t we be ourselves, like we were yesterday?


Go to the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A. It’s amazing, it’s huge, it’s massively relevant as a commentary on late capitalism and culture, and was really inspiring.

I didn’t know a lot about postmodernism – especially postmodern art – before I went, but feel at least a little more informed now, and also super keen to learn more. The exhibition covers loads of ground, from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and includes fine art, graphic design, product design, craft, sculpture, fashion, photography, film, literature and music. It emphasizes the break with modernism as a narrow, formal approach and ideology who’s promise of a utopian future collapsed in itself, replacing it with an experimental and less certain approach that picked over the corpse of the modernist dream, appropriating and reusing elements of modernism and all that went before it. The exhibition stressed that the postmodern art movement is impossible to neatly define and characterise, and that a plurality of approaches and ideas was precisely what made it so different from modernism.

At the moment I’m really interested in cities and dystopias, my favourite parts of the exhibition were the ‘paper architects’ of the late Soviet Union who were trying to deal with the fall of the Soviet dream.

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

Brodsky & Utkin - Paper Architecture

I also really enjoyed (well I didn’t enjoy it, it was kinda depressing, but fascinating) watching the move from the radical, anti-establishment postmodernism of the 1970s, towards a totally self-aware and kind of grotesque celebration of capitalism, power and consumerism. It wasn’t all a celebration, with pieces like Jenny Holzer’s “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT” billboard, and another billboard in the London Docklands grimly announcing that “Big Money is Moving In” – part of Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson‘s Docklands Community Poster Project.

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Jenny Holzer's 'Protect Me From What I Want'

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson's Docklands Community Poster Project

It showed the contradictions a lot of the artists were wrestling with, producing art that tries to critique the spectacular consumerism of the 1980s but ultimately becoming yet another commodity. The exhibition referenced lots of pop culture that I was too young to grasp the significance of at the time, and all the stuff about appropriation, bricolage and Leví-Strauss (ANTHROPOLOGY! Yeah!) was awesome – it didn’t quite get as far as the Situationists and detournment, but the parallels were pretty interesting.

Go if you can, if you can’t, watch Blade Runner and maybe some Talking Heads and New Order videos.

I went with my mum who came out raging against the commodification of art – after ending with a series of pieces criticising 80s excess and consumerism, a neon sign tells you to Shop! and you’re sent back into daylight and a stack of exhibition souvenirs (I got some Baudrillard badges because I’m pretentious). I now want to read everything by JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, watch Brazil, and be Grace Jones and/or Annie Lennox when I grow up. Also, Frederic Jameson is now top of my reading list, as someone who has somehow escaped all of my university reading lists so far…


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