Postmodernism: the movement we love to hate

G'Day Chair, Chris Connell & Brian Sayer, 1988

Nostalgic, elegant, tacky, cheerful, tasteless, complex and superficial, it was everything and nothing. It was far more an attitude than an aesthetic searching to disrupt. Today postmodernism has become the movement we love to hate.

Yet postmodernism gave us the framework to approach everything in our world including the creative process. Setting out to ‘deconstruct’ it gave us the freedom and ability to create something new albeit a ‘mish mash’ or pistache of what we already knew. It was a system of anarchy that gave a framework to criticise and re-evaluate the world when we were mere passive recipients of ‘truths’. It had a noble cause rallying against the ‘grand narratives’ of our times. Itself subjected to the same chain of deferred meaning as was all else in the poststructuralist framework, it still managed to displace the modernist era.

Recently we have taken the contribution of the post-modern era for granted forgetting how it interrogated the dogma of authority. It gave us freedom in every respect replacing it with a sense of an ever changing reality and elusiveness. It advocated the revision of everything including law and social order, the creative arts and culture. We were no longer passive bystanders. The unmentionable became obvious as skeletons poured out of the closets and elephants in the room were named. We were able to reconfigure the world and create new beginnings. It affected everything in the creative industries including, film and video, architecture and design.

Juicy Salif lemon juicer by Philippe Starck, Designed for Alessi

Juicy Salif lemon juicer by Philippe Starck, 1990s, Designed for Alessi

Synonymous with postmodernism is the term ‘irony’. Postmodernists referenced and cross-referenced as a means of deconstructing and re-evaluating their disciplines. These devices, used to make direct or indirect comments, became one of its most identifiable characteristics despite making a pistache of it all. It may have seemed trite and superficial yet at the heart it had an anti-establishment core.

The G’Day chair by designers Brian Sayer and Christopher Connell, from the Powerhouse Museum collection clearly demonstrates the use of irony. You may cringe but the idea of basing a design on a clichéd idea of the Australian identity is noteworthy if not for its design then at least for its bravery. As the Bicentennial celebrations were approaching Australians were intent on defining identity, and perhaps we still are. The celebrations of 1988 were an opportunity to announce our development and advancement, a time to make ourselves noticed for our unique qualities as were the 2000 Olympic Games. However, living now in the globalised world, the notion of difference is not as important as it once was.

As an object, the chair still stands up as a worthy piece of design. Whacky, indeed, but it is obvious that a serious amount of thought has gone into making it technically precise while maintaining a conceptual base. It is sturdy, durable and essentially a chair that reflected an Australia that was responding to the reverberations of a post modernist doctrine.

Kettle designed by Michael Graves in 1984-85

Kettle designed by Michael Graves in 1984-85

“Post-modernism emerged as a cultural reaction to what had become the excessive conformity, conservatism and utopianism of the Modern movement, in tandem responding to changes in societal attitudes being negotiated through the Post-Colonial movement. Postmodernism also emerged in tandem with the Punk movement leading and planting the seed for Craft Punk where freedom of expression and truth to materials remain core values. Why Postmodernism? Sometimes entrenched traditional or conservative views just have to be turned upside down, turned on their head, to ensure culture and society remain relevant, democratic and dynamic”, says Anne-Marie van de Ven curator at the Powerhouse Museum.

It offered historicism, was self-referential, and expressed itself through bricolage, a mixture of styles, cut and paste, the presence of the past and the present, bright colour and decoration. It was the beginning of ‘mash-ups’ and sampling through appropriation in music and the arts. There was a general freedom of choice in design and the possibilities became endless. Historic motifs and architectural ruins cluttered the imaginations and works of many designers and artists. Ettore Sottsass designed using bright colours, strong contrasts and patterns. Michael Graves and Aldo Rossi experimented with architectural styles in their designs.

Tea and coffee piazza, Designed by Aldo Rossi, 1983

Tea and coffee piazza, Designed by Aldo Rossi, 1983

” Postmodernism incorporated symbolic messages, stories, humour and or unconventional colour while responding to the emotional needs of the consumer. Michael Graves’ successful silverware design demonstrated that imaginatively designed silver tableware could be both ground breaking in design and attractive to the public. The Tea and Coffee Piazza series influenced the appearance of domestic tableware not only in silver but also in stainless steel and other materials around the world and paved the way for a large scale involvement of architects in designing tableware,”says Eva Czernis Ryl, curator at the Powerhouse Museum.

Birds Nest Beijing, Architect Herzog de Meuron, Arup photographer Ben Mcmillan

Birds Nest Beijing, Architect Herzog de Meuron, Arup photographer Ben Mcmillan

Did postmodernism ever leave us? On the pessimistic end of the spectrum Alan Kirby suggests it is done and dusted and completely forgotten. In the post ‘Big Brother’ era he concludes that we tend to take the legacy of postmodernism for granted and have fallen into a non reproducible, vapid, trite, amnesiac, shallow stupor where there is no sense of the past or a future. The post postmodernist digimodernist or psuedo modernist world, as it is now known, is one where reality has ceased to exist except where we feel that we participate or intervene with it. The world is now dominated by market forces where we mitigate it through ‘doing’, clicking, surfing the net and downloading, giving us the illusion that we are participants. In his article in Philosophy Now, The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond Kirby states;

“Pseudo-modernism’s typical intellectual states are ignorance, fanaticism and anxiety…it was not born on 11 September 2001, but postmodernism was interred in its rubble”

Mantle Clock, Michael Graves, 1986, for Alessi

Mantle Clock, Michael Graves, 1986, for Alessi

On a less pessimistic note, cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker co-founders of ‘meta-modernism’ see postmodernism as a continuum and an internalised system of questioning that has not left us. It can be aesthetically exemplified by the practice of Herzog de Meuron in architecture which portrays the oscillation between the past and the present evoking the presence of the modern and of the postmodern but suggesting a new presence that is neither. It negotiates between universal truths and relativism construction and deconstruction and suggests the maturation of the early anarchistic approach of postmodernism.

I for one would like to believe in this later more optimistic view of the legacy of postmodernism. Cher Potter, of TANK magazine describes meta-modernism as an outgrowing of postmodernism’s ways and as Timothus Vermeulen states, it is a coming to terms with and adjustment to all the changes happening around us today. We now live in an age where creators suspend irony to make an attempt at sincerity, if only for a brief moment, and where we as viewers also understand the singularity of perspective. The Grand Narratives are gone. But I will not venture into the realm of post-irony or ‘performatism’, perhaps another time.