A SPECTER HAUNTS CONTEMPORARY ART--the specter of modernism. For some years now, artists and institutions have been invoking the disparate shades of the modern in terms that vary from the melancholic to the hortatory, from what sometimes seems a relapse into ruin aesthetics to the urgent call for a newly expanded, even universal, avant-garde. As an instance of the former we might adduce the ubiquity of work that treats of the architectural remains of modernism and the Eastern bloc; as an example of the latter, the renewed question of what comes "after" (surely a question begging preposition) postmodernism. Those tendencies are often hard to tell apart, but in sum the urge seems to be to revisit the aesthetics and politics of the modern with a view as much (avowedly at least) to reanimating its radical possibilities as to mourning the dwindling forms, and forms of life, that it has left behind.
The risks inherent in such an ambition are obvious, and in recent artistic and curatorial practice it has sometimes been hard to tell utopianism from archaeology, or nostalgia from catastrophism. In her contribution to the catalogue for "Modernologies," curator Sabine Breitwieser surveys the historical landmarks that have tended (perhaps too readily) to orient much commentary on the putative return to the problematics of the modern. There is first of all the end, or ends, of architectural and urbanist modernism, here pegged (following Charles Jencks's notorious formulation) to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in Saint Louis, on March 16, 1972--a punctual ending now routinely mirrored or elaborated by easy reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center. Then there are the ostensible infrastructural and political ends of Communism and colonialism, also subsequently and respectively complicated by the advent of a certain Ostalgie--to which many Western artists have not been immune--and the unending hubris of a globalizing neocolonialism.
Breitwieser is well aware of the paradoxical nature of these narratives of the collapse of modernism. The familiar historical coordinates that she cites make clear the treacherousness of any discourse on historical ends, and a proper suspicion of announcements of our historical distance from the recent past surely carries over too into treatments of a vanished artistic or literary modernism. In her introduction to the "Modernologies" catalogue, Breitwieser quotes an instructive passage from Raymond Williams's 1987 lecture "When Was Modernism?" Williams writes, "The innovations of what is called Modernism have become the new but fixed forms of our present moment. If we are to break out of the non-historical fixity of postmodernism, then we must search out and counterpose an alternative tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wide margin of the century ... to a modern future in which community may be imagined again." The contradictions in that exhortation are telling: On the one hand, we are "in" the static dehistoricized instant of postmodernism, and must perform the (almost caricaturedly modernist) act of breaking with its impasse. On the other, we can effect that breach only by acknowledging that modernism itself advanced at different speeds, in overlapping moments, and was decidedly unpunctual.
It was around this perplex of competing modernist impulses--rather than, say, a mere archaeology of styles or declared resurgence of a central universalizing imperative--that "Modernologies" sought to organize more than one hundred works by some thirty artists and collectives, most of them resident in Europe, however expansive the geopolitical histories by which they were exercised. I say "modernist" because, in truth, the wider topic of modernity flagged in the exhibition's subtitle seemed comparatively occluded in most cases. Or rather, it seemed that at those moments when it was a process of modernization that was at issue--the works that engaged certain colonial histories were the most obvious examples--it was precisely in terms of a cultural modernism that the stakes of the situation were most fully expressed, modernism providing (as Fredric Jameson famously put it) an accelerated response to, or critique of, the predicament of modernity. …