1. How Did We Get so Nostalgic for Modernism?
Published: 14.09.2013
in the series Modernist Revisitations
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I’m going to use this blog as a way to test out some ideas relating to a series of essays I’m putting together on the retrospectivity of contemporary art. What do I mean by retrospectivity? The tendency, found almost globally, for art to quote and repurpose pre-existing cultural artefacts. Pre-eminent among this tendency is the trend for repurposing Modernist art, architecture and design. There have been a number of exhibitions circling around this theme: think of I Moderni (2003), Altermodern and Modernologies (both 2009), and of course the leitmotiv of Documenta 12 in 2007 (‘Is Modernity Our Antiquity?’). But despite these the seemingly relentless proliferation of art that takes Modernism and its failures as a starting point, I am yet to read an incisive critical analysis of why this work exists in such abundance today, how it differs from previous modes of citationality (antropofagia, détournement, appropriation, etc) and what this obsession says about our present day and its relationship to history and politics.

Each week I’m going to try and peg my thoughts on a current exhibition or artist’s talk here in New York. This week it’s the Le Corbusier show at MoMA. All summer I’ve been meaning to get over there, and I finally managed it last Wednesday, in the company of my knowledgeable colleague Romy Golan (who contributed to the exhibition’s catalogue).

From the exhibition Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes at MoMA, June 15–September 23, 2013 (installation view)

As you might imagine,Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes is a thoroughly predictable exhibition in MoMA’s traditional style: it begins at the beginning and ends at the end, proceeding chronologically and avoiding any reference to politics, despite the fact that the guy was working for every regime imaginable from the 1920s through to the 1960s. If the exhibition puts forward any argument, it is for the centrality of landscape to Le Corbusier’s work—a point was best demonstrated via his unrealized projects for Algiers (low-rise housing curving deliciously along the coastline) and Rio de Janeiro (raised highways swooping amidst the hills).

But with walls painted in hideous jarring colours (virulent green, terracotta, golden yellow, burgundy) and photographic documentation reduced to postcard sized images—the only indication we had as to whether or not a project had actually been realized—the show was, visually at least, a missed opportunity. As many artists and photographers have demonstrated, Le Corbusier’s project is eminently photogenic. The only moments in the exhibition when the architecture seemed to come alive were the projections of short films, taken by Le Corb himself, showing people moving around his buildings. When it was just maquettes and drawings, I was struck by just how weird—and even slightly ugly—much of his work looks. It has none of the sensuous elegance of Niemeyer, the severe austerity of Mies, or the luscious colourism of Barragán.

Here, then, comes the uncanny part: I know very little about Le Corbusier, but what I do know comes primarily from the work of contemporary artists and lifestyle magazines, both of which speak in reverent tones about his buildings and chairs (especially his chairs!). But when I finally saw the Petit Modele armchair, I could only see it through Jorge Pardo (Me and My Mum, 1990). When I looked at the plans for Chandigarh, I could only think of Dominique Gonzales-Foerster (Chandigarh Book, 1996). And when I saw Firminy, I thought immediately of Christian Philipp Müller, co-curator of Project Unité (an exhibition held in the town’s Unité d’Habitation in 1993). The maquettes made me think of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Dom-Ino (1998), a reconstruction of Corb’s Domino House (1915), while every image of the Villa Savoye made me think of Ulla von Brandenburg’s theatrical video Singspiel (2009), filmed on and around that building. My knowledge of Le Corb is almost entirely refracted through contemporary art and the refrain—familiar from press releases for now over fifteen years—that artists are drawn to ‘failed utopias’, are fascinated by ‘Modernist movements and collectives’, are committed to ‘the re-enactment of historic high Modernist principles’, or are drawn to ‘forgotten Modernist constructions that have crumbled over time’. (All quotes taken from Frieze magazine in the first six months of 2013.)

From Christian Philipp Müller, Forgotten Future, 1992. © Christian Philipp Müller
How did we get to such a point of nostalgia for Modernism? Müller plays a key role here. As far as I can make out, he was one of the first contemporary artists to address Le Corbusier, back in 1992, and he does so in a tone that is entirely out of sync with what follows. The early nineties was the tail end of cultural postmodernism, prior to contemporary art’s globalization, and Müller’s work reflects this assertively critical moment. His installation Forgotten Futures (1992) traces the connections between several unrealized late modern utopias: the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels (in which Le Corbusier collaborated with composers Iannis Xenakis and Edgar Varèse), Nicolas Schöffer’s book The Cybernetic City (1969), and Veit Harlan’s film Different from you and me (1957), which explores the then taboo subject of homosexuality. Müller’s installation comprises a model of the pavilion, a reconstruction of the ‘miniscule bureau’ from Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris, a black box in which Varèse’s eight minute composition plays, a display of his scores alongside Le Corbusier’s original Modular drawings, an information panel about Schöffer’s vision for a cybernetic city, a vitrine with more original documents from Le Corbusier’s archives, and a cinematic showcase of Harlan’s Different from You and Me. If you’re exhausted by this list, then don’t worry; I was too. Not only does this work auger the contemporary obsession with modernism, but it’s a prime example of what is now called ‘research-based art’: vitrine heavy installations, less interested in form than in connections.

When I first met Müller a few years ago, he told me that his interest in Le Corbusier went back to his training as a graphic designer in the 1970s. He was taught by a generation for whom the architect’s modular system was the answer to everything. When he changed career to become an artist in the 1980s, he was interested in deconstructing this idealism. In Forgotten Futures he turned back to the late 1950s, a moment that he understood to be the end of modernism, but which also has an autobiographical component (he was born in 1957). Returning to the late 1950s became a premise for thinking about what a previous generation (specifically, his parents) might have imagined his future to be.

Le Corbusier study from Christian Philipp Müller, Forgotten Future, 1992. © Christian Philipp Müller
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Forgotten Futures is the certainty of Müller’s own critical position vis-à-vis Le Corbusier. The installation strives to foreground the limitations of Le Corbusier’s idealism, focusing on what it represses. Like much of Müller’s subsequent work, it comprises an investigation of how Modernism’s pristine spaces don’t allow for any of life’s contingencies: in his words, ‘personal conflicts, sexuality, affects, the unforeseen, the irrational and alternative histories’. He continues: ‘I was interested in the backside of Modernism which I began to mistrust in terms of its universal claims’.  In many respects, then, Müller continues the critique of Modernism that had been begun by US theorists in the 1970s and early 1980s, but now geared towards a rejection of Le Corbusier’s totalitarian thinking rather than to a rejection of Greenberg’s authoritarian claims. He picks up on many of the tropes of this critique—especially its attention to the exclusion of sexual difference—and translates them into a European context. Forgotten Futures has a clear position, but its methods and installation remain somewhat didactic.
Jorge Pardo, Le Corbusier Sofa and Le Corbusier Chair, 1990. © Jorge Pardo
I’m lingering on Müller because his installation about Le Corbusier seems so strikingly different in mood from subsequent art addressing Modernism. More typical—but equally early, dating to 1990—is Le Corbusier Chair and Le Corbusier Sofa by the Cuban artist Jorge Pardo. It’s a refabrication of Corb’s classic chair and loveseat using industrial copper tubing, rather than the polished steel tubes that form the core of the original. Pardo leaves his copper pipes unpolished, unstraightened and without upholstering, turning the furniture into a bare skeleton or sculpture. A further version of these Corbusier seats, now with brightly coloured cushions, is titled Me and My Mum (1991).
Jorge Pardo, Me and My Mum, 1991. © Jorge Pardo
The title seems to draw attention to the way in which these chairs have great cachet amongst the upwardly mobile, Wallpaper*-reading creative classes, but hold no such appeal to the artist’s immigrant mother. Rather than criticizing Modernist values, then, Pardo seems to show how cultural contexts and conventions affect meaning and value judgments. But at the same time, his work is made with a knowing wink and is function as an in-joke. You don’t get the sculpture unless you recognize Le Corbusier’s chairs and their reputation.
Tobias Rehberger and Pascal Martine Tayou, Untitled, 1994 (installation view)
In a similar spirit, and around the same time, German artist Tobias Rehberger spent two weeks in Yaoundé, Cameroon, at the invitation of the Goethe Institut. He took with him perspective drawings of chairs by Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto and Gerrit Rietveld, amongst others. With the help of Cameroonian artist Pascal Martine Tayou, he found craftsmen who each made a chair from the drawings (which were neither drawn to scale, nor exact in detail). These chairs (Untitled, 1994) were then exhibited in Yaoundé, while the drawings were shown in Cologne.  Like Pardo, Rehberger works at the interface of art and design; these early works seem to take subversive pleasure in de-skilling the classics of design history. But they also function as a code to those in the know: the point of having Rietveld chairs made by Camerounian craftsmen is precisely to generate a frisson between a sought-after (ie expensive) example of European modernism and a (presumably inexpensive) knock-off using local traditions.
Tobias Rehberger and Pascal Martine Tayou, Untitled, 1994 (installation view)
Since the early 1990s, the number of works referring to Le Corbusier seems to have diminished; he’s been replaced by a cast of less mainstream Modernist heroes like Eileen Gray, Jože Plečnik, Zofia Stryjeńska or Mathias Goeritz. What all of this work has in common is firstly, that it sees Modernism as a thing of the past, and secondly, that it’s invariably more admiring than critical. The tone is always respectful, and the appearance is always highly aestheticized. Why is this?

3 comment(s)
Peter Burleigh
Posted 17.09.2013 at 09:59

Let’s take the premise of the end of modernity as having fallen, of being passed, and turn that around on itself. Modernism extends up to now in many works, albeit with some knowing nods to post internet super hybridity, yet there are few striking addresses to Modernism in which it is not merely rearticulated with a slightly shifted disguise.

Modernism, the boorish male break with the past, seeped in it’s own depression and misery, yet essentially optimistic—the future utopia if only we can escape our shattered selves—might be conveniently lodged in the past at one remove from us. It might be nice to think that Modernism in its actual world of material things that artists make, or that minimalists reduce to the max, or that conceptual artists then don’t make at all—merely providing process and instructions is sometime back there, over, superseded. The location in to a specific period, however that period is bracketed is part of the agenda of Modernism—be in time. And that’s the point about Modernism, at least the Modernism that Müller critiques, or that as Claire Bishop claims is now hailed via an archival distance: it’s actual not virtual.

Suppose we think differently and sit inside our argument, get immanent with it. Take Beckett. A flow whose velocity swept up from Modernism’s detritus: a folding, stretching, elastication of language. The virtual raised up and out into instances of actual, yet only glimpses which then seep back into the soup of language. In contrast, the making of things, unlike language becomes so thick with objectness that its dynamism is all but lost. Only the acceleration of more and more objects keeps the flow going. Beckett knew this to be different exploiting the emptiness of language as much as its overburdened fullness

So with language, our own inherent virtual medium, we can tell, and hear a different story. Language, combined with image, time-based gives us much of the exciting video work we can see today; work that couches itself outside Modernism’s archetypical psychological world even if it uses the materials that Modernism set free for the artist. So Alice Theobald’s Mike Check (2013) showing at Young London, V22 Workspace, or Trisha Baga’s An Inconvenient Trash (2013) or Ed Atkins’ Even Pricks (2013) both at the 12th Lyon Biennale distinctly different works, yet unified in an approach to engage with the adjacent, the parallel, the folded-over-right-next-to-us virtual.

They unwrap the terror of Modernism, its serious agenda of form/functional agency at an abstract level beyond the social and political world of art statement, and launch into imaginary virtual worlds that explore our existential experience in word, image, movement and in translation (and the lack of) between these three domains and their cognates.

In the context of the Winterthur Blog, Claire Bishop has raised an interesting question. It seems she has eschewed the photographic. And indeed this is the problem if we do shift the discussion to photography. How to be interesting without being clichéd, how to let go of the master classes of Modernism, how to go beyond the seemingly necessary fixity of the image that tells all? How to adopt a line of flight that moves across these territories? In other words, how to extend from the actual towards the virtual, if not clamber into it.

The only way forward seems to be to abandon the myths of realism that solidified around the semiotics of the photographic image, and try to think photography much like Theobald, Atkins, Baga do about the image—think through the image, through and past to only make the image stronger: think non-photographically. To achieve that we have to both indulge in the modernist heritage that shaped so much of 20th-century photography, while willingly allowing the ambiguities and absurd systematicity of photography to break itself down. Perhaps here we can think how Wolfgang Tillmans has consistently dodged in and out of Modernist tactics—literary Modernist tactics, tellingly; adopting some of its guises, but never its manifesto, addressing the systems of language and image, rather than really depicting anything by doing so visually. Returning if anything to the questions earlier Modernist writers asked of language, Tillmans most definitely put his spoon in the photographic soup and gave it a good stir, disrupting the historic tracing of a unitary utopic medium and so irreversibly unfolding photography as first and foremost virtual.

Joe Scanlan
Posted 30.09.2013 at 00:18

In retrospect (having been there and been acquainted with many of these artists), I think much of the attraction to Modernism was quite practical. It was a way out of the arid absolutism of Minimalism which, as Brian O'Doherty keenly observed in the mid-sixties, was going to be a very very hard aesthetic to get rid of. In modernist architecture, Pardo et al saw the forms that preceeded Minimalist and the wear and tear that would rescue those forms from the mausoleum of theatricality. You could sit on Pardo and Rehberger's minimalism because its (forced) pedigree was architecture and design rather than constructivism and sculpture.
What I find compelling now, Claire, thanks to your reflections, is the idea that the design artists were onto (rather clumsily, imo) what relational aeshetics achieved; only Pardo and Rehberger had too much reverence for the object to jettison it for human interaction in time and space and got bogged down in the referentiality of their made things. Citing "failure" was just a way to cover their limited production methods and patchy results with a critical idea.
On the upside, however clumsy, I think their furniture sculptures functioned as a kind of prosthetic that rehabilitated gallery-goers for what was soon to be their new job: participation.

Claire Bishop
Posted 02.10.2013 at 15:45

Thanks to both of you for these comments. Peter, I confess I’m struggling to make a connection to the Modernism you speak of—I think we might have different ideas going on here. I’m not talking about a self-critical examination of the medium, or an ideology of futurity, or a set of techniques and beliefs, but about a particular idea of Modernist architecture and design that we encounter as an incessant refrain in contemporary art. Admittedly, most of this is sculpture and installation rather than anything specifically photographic, but knowledge of this work is nevertheless predicated on photographic reproduction, especially one that gives full reign to Modernism’s photogenic qualities.
This is particularly clear in Simon Starling’s Three White Desks (2008-9), an installation of three desks whose design is based on one designed by the painter Francis Bacon for the Australian writer Patrick White in the early 1930s. Returning to Australia without his desk in 1947, White commissioned a joiner in Sydney to recreate it from a photograph but was never satisfied with the result. Starling therefore commissioned three cabinet makers in three cities to build replicas of the desk, working only from a single image. Firstly, high-res scan of a vintage black and white photograph of the original desk was given to a Berlin-based cabinet maker; then this completed desk was photographed and sent to a cabinet maker in Sydney; finally, the process was repeated a third time in London. The resulting three desks evoke Minimalist seriality, but point to the technological degradation of the photographic image, but to the assimilation of avant-garde design into a debased mainstream.
Which brings me to Joe: I love your point about the appeal of Modernist architecture in the early 1990s being the way out of the Minimal while auguring the relational. You could be onto something here. But I do think the trend reads differently when you move outside of the relational aesthetics camp, especially in the hands of artists like Simon Starling or Dorit Margreiter or Paulina Olowska. For these artists, participation is less of an issue than placing sculpture in relation to global forces (the market, colonialism), in the case of Starling, or preserving a socialist aesthetic now sidelined by the homogenous ‘good taste’ of neoliberalism, in the case of Margreiter and Olowska.

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