a kinder, gentler postmodernism. Essay by Brett Osborn
Situationalism is defined as “recontextualizing the mundane in order to value the real. Events based upon experience rather than the object, but unlike postmodernism, the simulacra and meta-narrative are devalued.”
The evidence that postmodernism is waning is illustrated by the lack of cynicism of our present culture against the tenants of modernism. A post-postmodern zeitgeist can be seen by the shift away from the object towards complete bestowment of meaning onto the observer and the context of the situation in which the observer witnesses the art.
If we believe in Lyotard’s pronouncement that Postmodernism is the nascent state of modernism then today art is still on the first date. The de-evolution of modernism began with modernity. The shift away from object as art began with mass production and a consumption society. The object as a carrier of meaning could no longer exist in a throw away society. The object became merely a vehicle to present an image (simulacra) of our superficial values. Without the object existing to satiate a fetish our culture displaced this fixation upon the pop star. The artist became the art. Andy Warhol comes to mind but later artists took it literally. Janine Antoni’s Loving Care performance at Luhring Augustine Gallery in 1993 is a case in point. She painted the entire gallery floor with hair dye using her hair as the brush. This placed her body as the instrument of art making. The shift from passive observer to participant became integral to the creation of the work. Without the observer being present the exchange of ideas such as the incongruity of women’s roles and self-identity with physical appearance would not have been communicated. The role of art began to shift away from the artist’s action upon a surface towards the experience of the viewer. In Thomas Struth’s photographs, museum attendees experience art objects but we are more interested in the attitudes of the people in the photographs than we are with the objects they are encountering.
Today we go to Starbucks or Caribou Coffee with the intention of valuing the experience as much if not more than the expensive beverage we purchase. The abundance of material pouring in from Asia and the redefinition of “luxury” (the entry level automobiles by BMW and Mercedes have lowered their prestige in search of a larger market share) has devalued the object. When the rich want a bargain they shop at Cosco. This homogenization of object value has placed quality of life on the situation. The new “keeping up with the Jones’s” is now based upon the quality of the experience rather than the acquisition of material goods. Gifts comprising of experiences such as spa certificates, gym memberships, and vacation packages exceeded in dollar amount that of objects during the 2006 holiday season.
Where did this shift originate? The fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall played a significant role in this paradigm shift. The free flow of ideas between completely different cultures as well as the flow of Eastern thought influenced both the East and West. In the Soviet Union where non-consumable objects are kept out of necessity beyond its normal life, the value of the object is dependant upon the environment within which it is placed. The same bowl will have different meaning at home than it will at work. Therefore, context has more meaning and value to a Soviet culture than the acquisition of shoddy objects. The culture and artwork reflected this. We of course exported culture and quest for commodities.
We Americans have also experienced a shift in the symbols of wealth. The price of the elite object has lowered to accommodate the creditors of the mass public. Entry level Mercedes, 0% down mortgages, and payment plans for just about everything has allowed luxury objects to be accessible to everyone.
This Summer’s Exhibition at Nancy Solomon’s Gallery: Solomon Projects entitled, ”Wandern” is a prime example of “situationalism”. The gallery was transformed from a conventional white box into a study. Guests walked into an interior designer’s showroom but instead of shopping were asked to sit, eat lunch and interact with the guest architect/state director/decorator/artist. Several situations were created on separated days centered upon a different speaker. The gallery as marketplace for the acquisition of the object became subservient to the experience the guests participated in. The word “participation” is the key to the distinction between the post-modern and the post post-modern. The happenings of the 1960’s and De Bord’s situationist motivated performances contained a fourth wall where the distinction between “performer” and “audience” is clear. The present cultural zeitgeist places the art solely upon the participant. The audience and performer are now one; the art lies with the experience created by the participant.
The need to make the ordinary real is the Situationalist’s reaction to the simulacrum created by a post-modern culture. As an example: we drive home and discover the neighbor’s house on fire. We’re anxious to see if it made the news. We turn on the TV and wait to see if our reality has been validated by the media. The reality of our lives has been superseded by a fiction of reality. Every component of our lives has been accentuated. The thanksgiving dinner has dissolved into a memory of a Norman Rockwell thanksgiving where we play a role. Soon we will be watching a “Paris Hilton Thanksgiving” on TV rather than experiencing the holiday with our real family. The “reality TV show” is a hyper-surreality. The mundane has been sensationalized to the point where the war we are in has no ratings and the expectation of the American people in response to 9/11 was to “go shopping”.
The situation has tried to exercise the demons of sensation. Making Ramyun in a gallery setting has recontextualized the ordinary, made into a sensation, back to the mundane. A recontextualized reality for the purpose of devaluing the Modernist object is post-modern. Recontextualizing the mundane to value the real is situationalism.
Brett Osborn is an artist living and working in Atlanta