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Exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum tackles tough task: define "Postmodernism"
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, 2011 © V&A Images.

By: Mike Collett-White

LONDON (REUTERS).- On the wall near the exit to the Victoria & Albert's new show on postmodernism hangs a bright neon sign of the word "Shop". Many museums are too embarrassed to draw attention to the fact that they force visitors to walk through the gift shop in order to get out of a blockbuster show.

Not so "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990". But then the self referential joke with its bold allusion to consumerism is part of the point.

The show, which runs from September 24-January 15, 2012 at the London museum, attempts to do what some commentators believe to be nigh impossible -- define postmodernism.

The exhibition features works of architecture, painting, music and dance that its curators say fall into the broad remit of postmodernism, a movement they argue consumed itself in the 1980s through its obsession with consumerism and commercial success.

"Ultimately this was the undoing of the movement," said a commentary next to Andy Warhol's 1981 "Dollar Sign". "Postmodernism collapsed under the weight of its own success."

The question of what postmodernism means is a thorny one, a point acknowledged by co-curators Jane Pavitt and Glenn Adamson when they first unveiled plans for the exhibition in February.

Martin Roth, director of the V&A, hinted at the challenge it posed when he said of the show:

"There are so many layers to the subject that we hope that the younger generation will be interested to discover more about this dramatic period of art and design history, and its lasting impact."

The exhibition features some 250 objects divided into three parts -- architecture, where the idea of postmodernism first emerged, the spread of the concept into design, art, music and fashion, and what the V&A called the "hyper-inflated commodity culture of the 1980s".

In an early review of the show, the Guardian's Adrian Searle called it: "noisy, disjointed, crowded, clever, at once slick and messy, elegant and cacophonous, complex and enervating.

"The show mirrors its subject and becomes one with it. It is very difficult to focus on one thing at a time: high art and low design, lofty ambitions and walking-dead aspirations."

The V&A defined postmodernism as a drastic departure from modernism's "utopian vision" based on clarity and simplicity.

It focuses on some key moments in the movement's birth, notably architectural theorist Charles Jencks' assertion that modernism ended at the moment the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, was demolished in March, 1972, having been deemed a failure.

Artists, architects and fashion designers began to subvert the conventions and norms of their crafts, often employing a "cut and paste" approach of different styles and periods.

Performers like Grace Jones and Klaus Nomi played with gender and genre to come up with their own styles and personas, while hip-hop is also included because its "sampling" technique paralleled that of postmodernist architecture.

Warhol and Jeff Koons are among the artists who drew attention to the world's obsession with the commercial value of art, including their own.

Next to Warhol's Dollar Sign stands Koons's silver-coloured bust of French King Louis XIV, described by the Daily Telegraph as "a glittering totem of capitalist kitsch".

And nearby, novelist Martin Amis's words appear: "Money doesn't mind if we say it's evil, it goes from strength to strength."

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)

© Thomson Reuters 2011. All rights reserved.

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