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  • In the Post: or, the Work of Art in the Age of Digital Simulation
  • Brian Baker

Review of: Heaven, an exhibition of postmodern art curated by Dorit Le Vitte Harten. The Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, Germany, 30 July 1999–17 October 1999, and the Tate Gallery to the North, Liverpool, U.K., 9 December 1999–27 February 2000.

Are we still living in the “post”? Post-war, postfeminist, postmodern: the discourses of the “post” are the issues of the “West” or “North,” the colonizers, the “developed world.” The “post” in post-war is used to refer to post-World War II, but this ignores the global ubiquity of armed conflict in the last fifty years of “peace.” The “post” in postmodern (and postmodern culture) signals a negotiation with the Modern and its concerns, but also attests to a crisis in periodization. It is a crisis which has concerned North American, French, Australian, and British academe for the last thirty years. The “post” is a mark that implies failure, particularly in self-definition, and the collapse of the “New”; a collapse, as J.G. Ballard once suggested, of the future onto the present. The proliferation of “postmodernisms”—death of the master narratives, schizophrenia, simulation, problems with space and mapping—is an attempt to define a loss, a lack. The “post” is a presence signifying an absence, a foil stopper clapped over the abyss.

This is why I ask, “Are we still living in the post?”. How do we know that we have left the world of absence-in-presence/presence-in-absence and have rejoined the presence or absence? In other words, are we still in the Matrix, the Desert of the Real, the Well of Simulation?

Jean Baudrillard’s universe of simulation has itself been pronounced dead (a proclamation enunciated in Baudrillard’s own cry, “The Gulf War did not exist”). Simulacra did not litter the road to Basra. 1991, however, did not signal the end of Baudrillard or of the era of simulation. It merely represented his translation from interesting, if esoteric, academic beloved of Francophile cultural theorists, to the presiding eminence of the new “global village,” the world of information technology, or perhaps technologies of information. Even Hollywood now quotes Baudrillard. When Morpheus reveals the post-apocalyptic state of machine-ravaged America to Neo in The Matrix, he says: “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” Forget Baudrillard? That is the problem. In forgetting, his theory has become the way “postmodern culture” imagines itself.

The concept of simulation has become part of the cultural matrix. It has become part of the “‘representation’ of the imaginary relationships of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 153). Althusser’s formulation of Ideology was made before the universe of simulation, of course, and so he could make the distinction between “real” and “imaginary.” It is the first of Baudrillard’s “orders of simulation,” wherein representation masks reality. Such a distinction has been problematized in the age of the “post,” but here I want to insist on the economic processes of production and consumption which still negotiate our involvement with “postmodern culture.”

Heaven, an exhibition first shown at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, curated by Dorit Le Vitte Harten, and then relocated to the Tate Gallery in the North in Liverpool, UK, promoted itself by suggesting that the exhibited artworks show “how the religious impulse towards perfection... has become a secular impulse.” The artworks therefore offer icons for the contemporary world, examinations of the processes of iconicity, and representations of where “our” (read Western/Postmodern) “faith” has gone. These works respond to the crisis in representation of the last twenty years, a crisis which seems particularly bound up with the 1980s: Baudrillard’s Simulations was published by Semiotext(e) in 1983; Jameson’s key essay “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in 1984.

Both texts seem particularly appropriate to Heaven, perhaps because of the cultural belatedness which afflicts many of the works. Both theoretical models use a spatial metaphor to suggest a collapse of distance: Baudrillard’s fourth order of simulation famously proposes a copy for which there is no known original (sign-system without referent); Jameson suggests that parody has been supplanted...

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