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The Wild West – Was Postmodernism a global phenomenon?

Victoria and Albert Museum

Not even when I visited the Postmodernism exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the second time did it appear that anything was missing.1 Brightly lit neon signs guided me seamlessly from the fall of Modernism, symbolised by the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in America, all the way to the eventual commoditisation of Postmodernism, and thus ending appropriately with the exhibition gift shop.

I purchased the catalogue, went home and placed it on my bookshelf alongside the books concerning Surrealism and Aestheticism. Postmodernism was not out of place: after all it ended with –ism: it was linguistically welded to the grand narrative of design history. It was while pondering the New Acquisitions gallery at the V&A one afternoon that the grand narrative began to pale before my eyes. It was at the sight of a Barbie doll manufactured in 1959, of all things. She was new to the V&A – collectible because apart from being in the design of the first ever such doll – launched by Mattel that very year in New York – she was part of a collection owned by Denis Arkinstall, who designed the first ever Sindy doll released by Lines Brothers Ltd just a few years later.

Barbie fits well within the Postmodernist landscape in that she grew to become an icon of American consumerism, up there with the big American brands that feature in the V&A’s Postmodernism exhibition, including Coca Cola and Disney. She was even painted by one of the bastions of Postmodernism, Andy Warhol – whose work also features in the exhibition.  What was striking was this: although Barbie became an icon of American consumerism, this particular Barbie doll was manufactured in Japan. She is distinctly American in her looks and image and yet her plastic body was actually made in Asia. It is this that leads me to ask: where was the rest of the world – the world beyond the West – in the so-called grand narrative of Postmodernism?

Objects originating in Japan feature widely in Postmodern discourse and indeed the Postmodernism exhibition. But the fact that the Denis Arkisntall Barbie straddles East and West should not lead us to suppose that Postmodernism was spreading throughout the world. During the period the Postmodernism exhibition covers, the seventies and eighties, much of the globe didn’t boast the consumer culture that the West had developed subsequent to World War II. The Cold War world was still mainly divided into two blocks: those that comprised or allied with the West, (Europe, America and Japan) and those that did not (essentially the rest of the world). With Japan as the exception that seems only to prove the rule, Postmodernism didn’t really flourish outside of the Western world.

Let us take India as an example. Postmodernism implied a break with the past – with Modernism – but India was still a pre-industrial, unmodernised nation. Britain had self-consciously institutionalised design at the Great Exhibition of 1851, while India only opened the doors to its National Institute of Design in 1961. It wasn’t until 1997 that India adopted the Ahmadabad Declaration on Industrial Design for Development, which set out a plan to promote design in India, but even then, government initiatives barely touched the majority of Indians and design culture of the grassroots level remained at the margins. Hence India hardly presented the post-industrial scene from which Postmodernism (as we in the West know it) could flow.

At the same time, here in the heartland of Postmodernist culture, a fascination for the non-Western seemed to grow. The Postmodernism exhibition addresses this in its reference to the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition which was staged in 1989 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The Pompidou exhibition appeared to present a global picture of contemporary art by including the work of artists from America and Europe alongside those from India, Australia and Africa.

An object currently exhibited at the V&A is the work of Samuel Kane Kwei, a cabinet-maker from Ghana, whose Mercedes Benz shaped coffin made of wood with predominantly white enamel paint is clearly in line with Postmodernism’s claim to extravagance but it arguable whether this was the conscious wish of its creator. As a panel in the Postmodernism exhibition points out: “the works of these so-called ‘others’ (autres) often deployed seemingly postmodern techniques of bricolage and were seamlessly absorbed into the exhibition’s local grand narrative, regardless of their original intent.” The Pompidou exhibition did not, for example, account for the fact that Kane Kwei had been making coffins since as early as 1951 and that their specific purpose was to reflect the social background or profession of the deceased. It is worth asking whether work such as this truly was Postmodernist or whether it had been appropriated to fit in the context of a particular Western vantage point.

There are several other questions that the Pompidou exhibition raises. While works such as Kane Kwei’s Mercedes-shaped coffin represented African design, were they really representative of African design? And although many corners of the world were reflected, did the exhibition really present the world as it was at the time? Did it represent, for instance, the inequality of access to power, both economic and political? The lesson that emerges is that any attempt to characterise Postmodernism as a global historical stage or a universally coherent sensibility implies an extremely Eurocentric position.

There were other ways in which the West appeared to make the East complicit in the Postmodern movement but in fact did so only superficially. In November 1985 a major exhibition was launched in New York at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum as part of the New York Festival of India. 11 Western designers were paired with 265 Indian craftsmen to create the show and the result – the Golden Eye exhibition – was a series of Indian objects that were conceived for a Western audience. While the exhibition seemed to promote Indian design, a contemporary article in the Chicago Tribune refers to it as little more than this: “A Tribute to Indian Crafts.”

The article goes on to remark that the purpose of the show was to, “give Indian village crafts a global market.” It refers to the Indian artists as “artisans”, clearly adopting the vocabulary of the “crafts” as opposed to “design” or “art” to refer to them, while just sentences away describing their Western counterparts as “designers”. With an unmistakable tone of condescension the German architect Frei Otto is quoted as commenting that the Indian craftsman who made the steel cutlery he designed was fascinated to learn, “why Westerners eat with utensils.”3  Ultimately, even though the Golden Eye exhibition purported to bring India within the cultural horizon of the Postmodernism, in reality the objects at the exhibition seem to have been perceived as little more than ethic trinkets made by uneducated workers.

Here was India’s attempt to be perceived as credible in the eyes of the Western design market; yet the exhibition seems to have achieved little more than to have highlighted India’s then sluggish industrialisation. Certain theorists – in particular Ziauddin Sardar – have gone so far as to contend that Postmodernism has been employed by the West as a tool to justify the continuing oppression of non-Western countries and to create the illusion that there is but one ‘universal’ human history based on that of the West.

I wouldn’t take my reservations about Postmodernism’s claim to universality as far as that. It should not be perceived as a socio-political instrument that suppressed the East akin to colonialism; or at least not from the present vantage point, a time when (unlike even a decade ago when Sardar was writing) countries such as India and China benefit from burgeoning economies that will no longer be oppressed or defined in Western terms.

What does seem to be true, though, is that even if Postmodernism took cultures beyond the West under its wings, the flow of ideas certainly took place in one direction: from the West to the rest of the world. Barbie is one manifestation of the fact that the flow of ideas was a one-way street for she eventually was disseminated beyond the shores of America to India and China, yet there is no equivalent of Barbie that came to America from either nation. As Sardar has neatly put it, “one doesn’t see an Indian Michael Jackson, Chinese Madonna, a Malaysian Arnold Schwarzenegger”.5 

To conclude, Postmodernism certainly was not a sham. It is, as the curators of the exhibition concede, a phenomenon that defies definition, since it wasn’t carried out within a conscious framework, and this is undeniable that this one of its strengths. However, when you visit the exhibition itself, do remember that in the seventies and eighties at least, something was missing within what appears initially to be a meta narrative: Postmodernism as we know it was only really real in the Wild West.

This was a blog posted on Unmaking Things based on a talk delivered at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the Friday Late “Postmodernism Look”.

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1. Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 (London: Exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum, 24 September 2011 – 15 January 2012)

2. Victoria and Albert Museum, B.72:8-2010

3. Giovanni, Joseph ‘Golden Eye’ A Tribute to India Crafts (Chicago Tribune, 12 January 1986) [accessed 6 November 2011]

4. Sardar, Ziauddin, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture. (London, Pluto Press : 1998)

5. Ibid., p.22

6. Adamson, Glenn and Pavitt, Jane, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 – 1990 (London, V&A Publishing : 2011), p10

Suggested Reading

Dutta, Arindam, “No Duchamps in Delhi”  in Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 – 1990,ed. by Adamson and Pavitt. (London, V&A Publishing : 2011) pp. 270-273

Athavankar, Uday. “Design in Search of Roots: An Indian Experience”. Design Issues, Volume 18 n° 3 (2002).

Balaram, S., “Design in India: The Importance of the Ahmadabad Declaration”. Design Issues n°4 (2009).

Sardar, Ziauddin, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture. (London, Pluto Press : 1998)

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