Modern Times, Modern Shapes

Modernism in Australia

As some of you are aware, when I am not waxing lyrically about the subtleties and intricacies of our most beloved beverage, I am usually up to my waist in a hole somewhere, looking through 200 year-old garbage; part and parcel of my day job as a historical archaeologist here in Sydney.

The vast majority of our work deals with the period 1788 – 1900, however I am part of a growing number of archaeologists, heritage specialists and historians who are now casting an eye to our most recent material legacies – those of the 20th and early 21st centuries. This has become known as contemporary archaeology, or the archaeologies of the contemporary past. Just as we may say one thing whilst doing something completely contradictory, the material record of the recent past offers us a separate and oft-times divergent account of human behaviour in the recent past. Moreover, the material remains of the recent past are subject to hyper-depletion; because it is ‘new’ or ‘mundane’ or ‘every-day’ we value it less than a piece of material culture of which we have fewer examples,  or are of greater antiquity. Academics are beginning to realise that the designation of ‘archaeology’ as a discipline which deals solely with the ‘old’ or ‘rare’ is problematic at best, and entirely fallacious at worst.

With this in mind – we are now asking an intriguing series of questions regarding our most recent tracks in the sand. What is it about the late-20th century that speaks to us? What is it about the modern period which we must conserve for future generations? The answers to these questions may be more surprising than you would expect (for instance, the case may be made that a 1970s car-park is more worthy of conservation than a church of the same period, as the former is a far more diagnostic entity, indicative of technological and social change in the late-20th century).

I am currently writing a thesis on the archaeological and heritage values of an architectural style which became known as The New Brutalism – a form which, whilst initially highly popular amongst architects and civic planners, would later be widely decried as ugly, obnoxious and a blight on the landscape. This, however, was also said of ‘Art Deco’ buildings during the 1980s, High Victorian buildings during the 1950s, and so on… judgments made almost solely on the basis of subjective aesthetics and perceived social ‘value’. Whilst some Brutalist buildings do look out-of-place and could be construed as unattractive – this cannot be said for every building, just as it cannot be said of all Postmodernist, Constructivist, Functionalist or Millennial Minimalist buildings. We require a more sophisticated approach to the archaeology and heritage of Modernism in Australia, and the Powerhouse Museum is currently hosting an exhibition which beautifully showcases the scope, scale and power of Modernist architecture and design in Australia.

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Modern times: the untold story of Modernism in Australia reveals how modernism transformed life in Australia across five tumultuous decades from 1917 to 1967. The exhibition traces for the first time the impact of modernism on all aspects of Australian culture — from art, design and architecture to advertising, photography, film and fashion.

As the Powerhouse website states, “Modernism sought to build a better future in the aftermath of World War I. An international movement, modernism encapsulated the possibilities of the 20th century. It celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.

“Modern times looks at how modernism defined a new cosmopolitan culture in Australia, highlighting stories of avant-garde experiments. The exhibition also explores the city and its skyscrapers, milk bars and swimming pools, where modernism profoundly reshaped Australian life.

“Bringing together over 400 artworks and artefacts, Modern times focuses on a series of major interdisciplinary exchanges between modern architects, artists and designers. It features paintings by Grace Cossington Smith, Sidney Nolan and Margaret Preston; photographs by Max Dupain, Wolfgang Sievers and Jeff Carter; designs by Clement Meadmore, Douglas Annand, Robert Klippel, and Grant and Mary Featherston; as well as models and designs by architects Harry Seidler, Robin Boyd, Roy Grounds and Jorn Utzon.”

The exhibition has only a few weeks left in it’s run, and closes on February 15. I highly recommend checking it out, and asking yourself the question – what is it about our recent past which reflects my life and experience? The answer may surprise you.

Robert Jan 25th 2009 09:31 pm Events,History No Comments yet Trackback URI

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