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Architecture learns from Las Vegas, media transmits in real time, skyscrapers look like mocha pots, and in design, form now follows fun. “Everything at once – Postmodernism 1967 – 1992” is the title of a large-scale exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. Did our today begin with postmodernism?

By Thomas Wagner

Wonder cabinet with Karin: Trevor Fiore, Citroën, Karin model (1980), © Photo: Fonds de Dotation Peugeot pour la memoire de l’histoire industrielle

Everything is so colourful here! – Welcome to postmodernism! Design is freeing itself from functionalism and now operates according to the motto “form follows fun”. Architects are learning from Las Vegas, practising irony and unabashedly quoting forms from architectural history. Skyscrapers look like mocha pots, mocha pots like towers and museums like pieces of cake. In the wake of the moon landing, communication in real time is gradually establishing itself in the media. Even seemingly cemented political blocs are crumbling. Art, fashion, literature, music, dance, philosophy and film are experimenting with relish and playing virtuously with the legacies of modernity. Bubbles and spheres wander through architecture and film as visual echoes of all kinds of world spaces: Coop Himmelb(l)au run through Basel in an inflatable ball, Jane Fonda lolls around in plastic balls as a cosmic sex symbol in the weird science fiction film “Barbarella”. Architect Hans Hollein sets up his office in a transparent inflatable cell complete with telephone and typewriter, and Haus-Rucker-Co hang their “Oasis No. 7” on the façade of Kassel’s Fridericianum during documenta 5.

World in the head: Hans Hollein, architectural pill with pencil writing, Non-physical environment, 1967, © Privatarchiv Hollein
Data glasses with a difference: Walter Pichler, TV helmet (portable living room) 1967© GeneraliFoundation, Photo: Werner Kaligofsk

Not the End of History, but the Beginning of an Endless Present?

If you want to travel back in time to postmodernism at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, you have to walk through a screen showing various music videos by Annie Lennox, Madonna and other pop icons. The birth of postmodernism from the spirit of MTV – is what follows modernity nothing but “sweet dreams”? Once you have dived through the screen, a small pill hangs in the dark transit to the bulging exhibition cave. Hans Hollein stuck the two-coloured capsule onto a sheet of paper in 1967 and wrote underneath in pencil: “Architecture pill with pencil writing, non-physical environment”. The birth of postmodernism from the spirit of (pharmaceutically assisted) phantasmagoria? In the end, we will encounter another pill in the AIDS environment. With Nietzsche as the pillar saint of postmodernism in mind, we could go on asking this question for a while: The birth of postmodernism from the spirit of the media, virtuality, the exploding financial market …?

Imagination Takes Over, the Signs Dance

The fact is: at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, a lot of new, colourful and diverse things were flourishing (in the West). There was just as little shortage of new departure fantasies as there was of no-future consciousness and dystopian future scenarios, of experience economies and criticism of capitalism. The end of the gold standard unleashes neoliberal financial capitalism, Stuart Brand publishes his “Whole Earth Catalogue” and preforms a search engine on paper. Ant Farm steers a Cadillac into a wall of burning televisions – and Ettore Sottsass depicts the planet as a permanent festival of psychedelic pleasure architecture. In a world that consists more and more of free-floating signs and capital circulating without real cover, original and copy become one. The artist Sturtevant places copies of works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein on a sheet that is shown in the travelling exhibition “Art in the Mirror” at MoMA. Roland Barthes proclaims the “death of the author”, Marshall McLuhan examines how media massages the mind. From now on, artificiality and irony triumph; nothing is real, but everything is there at the same time.

Elaine Sturtevant, Warhol Flowers, 1969, © Sturtevant Estate, Paris, Photo: Charles Duprat, Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London-Paris-Salzburg-Seoul

Nothing is Finished, Everything Can Be Customised

Studio 65 not only creates a foam-born armchair in the shape of a column capital, Memphis not only breaks all the rules with its eccentric shelves, tables, chairs and beds and pays homage to the cult of patterned laminate – work is increasingly flexible and project-orientated, a creative economy is emerging that focuses on marketable differences. In short, the world becomes a case for design in a comprehensive sense (symbolically and in reality). From then on, everything is in flux: AIDS ends the era of free love and changes gender relations, Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra and Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” complete the delirium of signs. The list could go on and on, the colourful round dance is never-ending.

An Exploding Wonder Bag

It quickly becomes clear that the diversity of postmodern phenomena is difficult to deal within an exhibition. Where diversity is mixed with asynchronicity and fantasy and flavoured with irony and a dash of anarchy, no simple definition will catch on. So the exhibition translates what it understands by postmodernism in its title as follows: “All at Once – Postmodernism 1967 – 1992”. Nigel Coates stages the show about postmodernism as an overflowing grab bag and the result of a breathlessly fragmented, wandering imagination and constantly digressing attention. Was it an epoch, a style or just a fashion? No matter. The thesis of the show curated by Eva Kraus and Kolja Reichert is simple, but has the potential to raise further questions: “Our present began with postmodernism. From the ruins of modernism, which believed it could sort and regulate everything, a bizarre, eccentric world of visual surfaces and contradictions emerged that still characterises us today.” The story is to be told “from a frenetic time between perms and the beginning of the information society, between cultural capitalism and shoulder pads, Memphis furniture and identity politics”. At that time, it says, “new media synchronised the globe, the world became a great stage for self-realisation”.

Gaetano Pesce, UP5_6, 1969, 92 × 117 × 137 cm, globe Ø 60 cm, © B&B Italia, Vitra Design Museum

More than a Reunion with a Bizarre World of Colourful Visual Surfaces

The fact that the 30th anniversary of the construction of the Bundeskunsthalle by Gustav Peichl (itself a result of postmodernism and part of the museum and culture boom it promoted) is being used as an opportunity to draw attention to the fact that postmodern patterns of thought have shaped our present more than our defensive reactions would have us believe may initially come as a surprise. This makes it all the more important to analyse the current upheavals and upcoming transformations in terms of their historical roots. But it is also true that this is about more than just a reunion with a bizarre world of colourful visual surfaces. After all, a renewed look at the tectonic shifts recorded by the aesthetic seismographs of postmodernism teaches us something: In a pluralistic world, it is important to endure existing contradictions without hoping to mediate them in a meta-language. When, in the face of Trump, Putin, fake news and post-factual thinking, the new geopolitical disorder and the ego-mania of social media, there is talk of our present being as postmodern as not even postmodernism itself was, such historical thinking ignores how much the starting conditions differ. The energy and freshness of a new beginning are currently clashing with a fundamental scepticism about the future. Even then, there was nothing to be gained from a false longing for an old order, a “retour à l’ordre”. Instead, the emergence of postmodernism made it clear what climate, environmental, social and economic consequences modernity had led to in its long unbroken belief in progress. In the steel and glass ruins of a modernity frozen in instrumental thinking, which believed that everything was feasible and that resources could be exploited without consequences, postmodernism mobilised imagination and plurality with relish as antidotes. In the 1980s, nobody could have guessed how thoroughly the climate crisis, the internet, big data, social media and AI would cause a re-evaluation of values and colonise the imagination.

In search of lost modernity: Alessando Mendini, Interno di un interno (Sofa), 1990, © Collection Groninger Museum, Photo: Heinz Aebi

Everything at Once. Postmodernism, 1967 – 1992

Bundeskunsthalle Bonn, until 28 January 2024
The catalogue, designed by Studio Yukiko in an original but not very reader-friendly way, in German and English with essays by, among others by Nikita Dhawan, Diedrich Diederichsen, Oliver Elser, Gertrud Koch, Eva Kraus, Sylvia Lavin, Kolja Reichert and Lea-Catherine Szacka as well as interviews with AA Bronson, Joseph Vogl and Moritz Schularick, Neville Brody and Eva Kraus, Denise Scott Brown and Kolja Reichert and New Models with Kevin Driscoll, among others, is published by Hirmer Verlag Munich and costs 39 euros in the museum and 49 euros in bookshops.

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