Postmodernism – basically, a lot of elaborate teapots

8 Dec

‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’ Victoria and Albert Museum until 15 January 2012


I have failed to grapple with postmodernism for some time now, and so I was hoping this major exhibition dedicated to the movement at the V&A would enlighten me. Rooms and rooms are dedicated to extraordinary objects from the worlds of art, music, and architecture that drove and were influenced by postmodernism from 1970-1990. Without reading any of the captions this collection of objects – including a wide variety of brightly coloured and strangely shaped teapots, a dress that I honestly thought was a crocodile costume but was actually a ziggurat design, and a hologram of Boy George – give you the feel for what postmodernism is all about. It is subversive – rejecting authority, conformity, and discipline – doing its own thing – yet also hyper consumerist and superficial. These contradictions are not a problem – in fact, they are integral to postmodernism.


We start at the beginning of the movement, which begun as a response to the prevailing design at the time, modernism, with its emphasis on orderliness and rationality. Instead, one architect describes getting his inspiration from driving on motorways in the US and spotting ‘hoagies’ – giant 2D photos of sandwiches. This was a radical fringe movement which took a more playful approach to urban space and design, creating curves in buildings where once the rigid lines of modernism had stood. In one piece, a building in New Orleans which withstood Hurricane Katrina, the architect had designed a fountain which was the shape of Italy. Seeing the boot of Italy as a fountain in this model was surprising and surreal – exactly what postmodernism is about. Many other pieces in the exhibition had me laughing out loud, although I’m not sure this was always the intention of the designer – one animation had two skyscrapers engaging in sexual acts (there was even a small sign next to the piece warning of ‘scenes of a sexual nature’), there was a stool with a leg that resembled a penis, and an elaborate car shaped coffin. Humour brought a feeling of relief from the overbearing and stifling modernism.


Unsurprisingly, playful postmodernism caught the imagination and moved from an obscure peripheral movement into the mainstream. Here, postmodernism’s emphasis on bold images found its place amongst popular and consumerist culture, and its radical and critical edges were sanded down to make it more palatable for the hyper-capitalism of the 1980s and 1990s by which the movement became seduced. A large room, made to feel like an 80s club, blasts out pop music and is adorned with videos and clothes from pop stars of these decades showing the influence of postmodernism on pop and vice versa. This is not to suggest that pop and postmodernismbecame entirely frivolous for, as is shown in this rave like room, pop stars such as Annie Lennox contributed to gender politics and the subversion of gender stereotypes with their androgynous looks.


The movement became co-opted, serving the ‘needs’ of capitalism, as is well exemplified by a Micky Mouse tea set. However, some artists recognised this quickly and produced work critiquing this process of the commodification of art and life. ‘Protect me from what I want’ cries a neon sign lighting up New York. Even Andy Warhol’s canvas with a giant dollar sign signifies, as well as a celebration and enchantment with money, a parody of what art has become –literally a dollar sign that will generate many more of these. Ai weiwei too continues this theme of playing with the blurred boundaries between commodity and art and in turn critiquing the commodification of culture by emblazoning a Coca Cola sign on a 2,000 year old urn. This modification of the urn actually increased the value of the urn further, highlighting the distorted nature of today’s art market. This simple piece is striking and thought provoking, and, as with many of the works, humorous and subversive. My mum was horrified at the defacement of an ancient urn, I was somewhat impressed with Ai weiwei’s audacity. At the end of the exhibition, we were invited to ponder on whether postmodernism is still around today – as a neon sign ushers us into the gift shop filled with myriad colourful plastic objects.


This exhibition takes us on a journey through this strange and complex world of postmodernism. There is a great deal to take in, however, it is not intimidating but very good fun. My understanding of the movement has certainly deepened – and most importantly, I’ve learnt that the main thrust of it is basically about elaborate tea sets.    


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