Summer is the season of fireworks and festivals. What Barbie did on her summer vacation has included taking in a number of this season’s cultural offerings: Abstract Expressionists and General Idea at the AGO, Jean-Paul Gaultier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Twelfth Night at Stratford and the First Nations Festival at Place des Arts. In other words: art deconstructs life deconstructs art. I finally “get” post-modernism (and not a moment too soon since the frontrunners of culture are already announcing its demise, although I suppose in itself that could be seen as a postmodern construct).
This is not to say that the Abstract Expressionist movement is postmodern; it is not clever and is self-referential in the extreme. The gesture is the message and the bigger the better. It is the big sloppy sundae of art with everything on it, made the way you like it. Whether it tastes good or not is irrelevant. But it was the yin to my understanding the tangy yang of po-mo.
The self-proclaimed postmodern production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Stratford was my first foray into experiencing the rush that comes from juxtaposing and overlaying traditional forms with implicit and explicit contemporary references. My first reaction to the electric guitar player in Elizabethan-styled leather belting out “if music be the food of love, play on” was whaaaat? Followed by, play on, I love it!
I can’t tell you what po-mo is, but I know it when I see it. One of the definitions I came across states, “That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” (What he said…tastes like chicken.)
After that, my summer has been just one big, po-mo (if you’ll excuse the expression) mind-fuck.
The General Idea retrospective turned on the lightbulb to illuminate for me deconstructed and reconstructed reality. The recurring symbols and themes (poodles, pills and threesomes) becoming as instantly recognizable as the Warhol soup can, combined with the very clever Miss General Idea Pavillion that was never built yet successfully reconstructed after (or before) the fact, complete with shards rescued from the non-existent archeological digs. Too clever by half. The repeated theme of threes perhaps casts some light on Bronson’s current pastime of studying theology to “see where Christianity fits into the big picture”.
It is clear to me that the Barbie project has been entertaining, but is it art? It is not “real life” but merely playing at life; then again, we do spend an awful lot of time in the game, in particular the awful office game, where failure to play by the rules can result in epic fail. The experiment teaches that workplace and social interaction is not real life but rather, artificial reality – it is the structure that defines us – but although there is no “I” in team, there is art in artifice.
Take the First Nations Cultural festival at Place des Arts: a conceptual 100-foot-tall teepee constructed of translucent illuminated acrylic sheets, coloured light-panel moose sculptures mounted in black ironic frames reminiscent of the stained glass at the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal and a white anthropologist from UQAM demonstrating traditional skills such as making stone arrowheads. I still can’t decide whether it was the most authentic comment yet on native culture or the effect of winter boredom and summer heat on the festival designers’ judgement.
During that same visit to Montreal I took in the Gaultier Haute Culture exposition with its Disneyesque mannequins sporting holographic hyper-real facial expressions and providing commentary on the fantastical fashion creations and life in general, a.k.a. absurdity. The iconic forms echoed the themes of native culture and madonna/trinity with satisfying synchronicity.
And I even picked up the perfect po-mo Barbie dress for half price at a random shop on St. Laurent to wear with the fashionable Cole Hahn purse gifted to me by a dear friend visiting from out-of-town. The artifice of the Barbie project informed the authenticity of the artistic experience. Priceless.
Now, I am working on my own painting. I do not pretend to be an Artist but I like to create art for my very private bedroom gallery. The Barbie project is artful; it is my own personal summer fireworks display. The word for fireworks in French (feux d’artifices) and Spanish (fuegos artificiales) reflects the artificial nature of that fiery show. They are ephemeral, tracing bright colours across the sky canvas and fading as soon as they burst into being. The painting is personal and authentic; this art is real. It is as yet unfinished; it is messy and there are layers so you can’t see what is underneath. Perhaps when it is done, I will put it up on the blog with an appropriate narrative so that it can become art.