Modernist Revisitations | Claire Bishop | Saturday, 14.09.2013

How Did We Get so Nostalgic for Modernism?

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?