Postmodernism at the V and A

Filed in Reviews by on September 26, 2011

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion

Victoria & Albert Museum, London 

24 September 2011 to 15 January 2012


“I think of the post modern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”

Umberto Eco wrote this in 1980 and if there’s one thing I always associate with Postmodernism it is the garish kitschy style of the 80’s. If the V&A’s autumn exhibition which examines the full spectrum of postmodernist culture has taught me anything it is that it actually all started a little bit earlier than I thought.  This messy sprawling exhibition spanning the years 1970 – 1990 attempts to trace the rise of the postmodern movement from its roots in the architecture of Aldo Rossi and Charles Moore, through it’s influence on fashion, film, art, music, performance and design. And like the aesthetics of the postmodern era, it’s all a little bit too much.

Postmodernism itself has always been rather a grey area. Every essay, book, encyclopedia entry on the subject seems to begin by saying “Postmodernism is a troubling term” or “Postmodernism is a demanding terrain” or (my own personal favourite) “postmodernism is hard to define and there is little agreement on the exact characteristics, scope, and importance of postmodernism.” This lack of tangibility was always going to make an exhibition of this type problematic. “Pastiche” is a word always associated with postmodernism, and despite taking the form of a chronological narrative of progression the exhibition does knowingly ape the movement’s own hodgepodge aesthetics. Clips from Koyaanisqatsi blare in the distance beyond a Jenny Holzer and a room seemingly dedicated to attractive androgynous musicians wearing seemingly unwearable clothing. The museum is dark and lit by neon, there is music playing incessantly; this not the exhibition to attend on a hangover.

The show is most serious and “museum-like” in it’s consideration and display of architecture through models and photographs. Though throughout I found that the museum environment was   ultimately jarring for a show of this kind. There is just something a little disconcerting about the familiarity of the pots and pans and ornaments and assorted ephemera displayed in the museum cabinets. Was it really that long ago? The Mickey Mouse teapot just doesn’t feel like it should be viewed behind glass like some kind of relic…

My biggest problem with this exhibition is that it seems to be simultaneously too much and not enough. Postmodernism was basically an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, and yet the theory is hardly touched upon, there is so much text explaining so little. There is also a dearth of visual art. What is displayed is yawningly predictable; a Warhol, a Sherman, a Koons.

I left the exhibition feeling hollow and disillusioned and jaded. Which is obviously very postmodern.


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Beth Fox

About the Author ()

Beth Fox is an artist, writer and independent curator. She has recently exhibited work at Divus Gallery, London, Sluice, London, Angus-Hughes Gallery, London, the Horse Hospital, London and the Bunkhouse Gallery, Madrid. She was born in Ireland and lives and works in London. More information at:

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