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Postmodernism: Style & Subversion

Curated by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, the V&A museum unveil one of the major exhibits of their autumn schedule this week, looking back on 20 years of postmodernism

Opening this week, the V&A look to some of the most iconic and influential pioneers of Postmodernism in an exhibit encompassing twenty years of modern history from 1970 through to 1990, shaping a generations reawakening and redefinition of style. With over 250 objects on display, the exhibit navigates its way through the worlds of architecture, design, art, fashion, music, club culture and the commodity boom of the 80’s.

With pieces such as Grace Jones’ infamous maternity dress, artwork from the man behind the iconic New Order Power, Corruption and Lies album cover, Peter Saville, and one of the most influential and iconic contemporary Chinese artists of his time, Ai Weiwei, the exhibit is an examination and celebration of a generation who subverted the outdated modes of modernism, laying the path for new ideas and identity fit for the vibrant youth a part of it. Dazed Digital caught up with co-curator Glenn Adamson in advance of the opening to find out more about the exhibit.

Dazed Digital: How did the exhibit originate and why is it important to showcase this collection now?
Glenn Adamson:
It is the latest in a series of exhibitions the museum has done on the key styles of the century - Art Nouveau, Art Deco, etc. The V&A has acquired a lot of material for this show, which make up some of the 250 objects overall, so there will be plenty of interesting material to look at.

DD: What do you think the resurgence of 80s aesthetic and culture, especially in London, says about culture/society/art today? Where and what are we moving towards from Postmodernism?
Glenn Adamson:
Postmodernism’s greatest success was in fracturing expectations about period style - so we no longer think of ourselves as working to a single shared ‘look.’ This is ironic, since postmodernism itself was such an extreme style and did indeed sweep through every genre of design in the 80s – fashion, TV and film, graphics, interior decoration, etc. But its techniques of complete fragmentation and its prioritisation of difference over unity really transformed ideas of design, such that ‘post-postmodern’ culture is defined not so much by stylistic coherence, but by other issues such as technology (the internet), ethical imperatives (environmentalism), and perhaps production strategies (as in the Chinese economic boom).

DD: What has the response been like from collaborators?
Glenn Adamson:
It is true that many people don't like being called postmodernists – it is used to be an insult after all - but we have gotten tremendous support in almost all cases. Of particular note is Jean Paul Goude, who styled Grace Jones in the late 70s and early 80s. It is his image we're using as the icon of the show and he has completely recreated that garment (which was only a temporary performance costume originally worn at 4am in a gay club in NYC) for us. It's a real centrepiece of the exhibition.

DD: What is your favourite or the most important piece in the collection and why?
Glenn Adamson:
For me, a stand out is definitely David Byrne’s ‘Big Suit’ from the film Stop Making Sense. I love its deadpan humour, exaggeration, and the way it literally performs the idea of larger-than-life celebrity (while also mocking the idea of ‘The Man’ in a business suit). And for me, there is also the sheer thrill of seeing something in person that I first experienced as a goggle-eyed teenager. A more design-oriented choice would be Mendini's Proust Chair of 1978, a classic example of postmodern quotation and pastiche. The title is taken from literature, the form adapted from eighteenth-century Baroque furniture (swollen to improbable proportions), and the decoration swiped from a Pointillist painting by Paul Signac. This surface treatment was achieved through the ingenious means of projecting a slide of the painting onto the chair, and daubing paint onto its surface to match the dots. So it bespeaks its own mediated, parasitic design status on multiple levels. Though Mendini has reproduced the chair many times, our exhibition includes the first version ever made.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 opens at the V&A Museum from 24 Sept 2011 to 15 Jan 2012. he exhibition is supported by the Friends of the V&A with further support from Barclays Wealth