In 1908, Adolf Loos published a polemic modern architecture pamphlet titled “Ornament and Crime”. Ornamentation, he argues, is redundant, cost-intensive kitschy decoration, and an expression of the cultural backwardness which can be found in primitive cultures, and which is not representative of modern man. “The barbarian era,” the architect concludes, “is finally past.”
Only a few years later, Siegfried Kracauer showed that even the modern era, which strives for practicality and rationalization, produces ornaments on its surface. He argues that these ornamentations are an expression of modern mass society, visual representations of modern life and its realities. The ornamentation is not taken into consideration by the masses who produce it. It develops without their knowledge. They do not produce it consciously or on purpose, which is why it resembles “the aerial shots of landscapes and cities”, in which patterns only emerge for the distant viewer.
Contrary to Loos, for Kracauer, who considers ornaments to be expressions of everyday life in modern society, ornamentation is something that cannot be pushed aside. He argues that as a reflection of modern existence, the ornament is a readable expression of social structures and should be understood as an opportunity to identify patterns in modern society and face the consequences of what may have gone awry. If the modern man, however, still fails to examine the conditions of life, given this new perspective, then he will once again become subject to the unseen forces, as in nature, which determine modern life and are therefore beyond his control – e. g. the powers of capitalistic rationalization.
The theory from Kracauer to make the conditions of life readable and subject to critique through the ornamentation have not played a role in art since the Loosian critique. With the exhibition, “The Power of Ornament”, at the Orangery, Lower Belvedere in Vienna, curator Sabine B. Vogel points out that in the contemporary art of the last few years, a movement has begun which takes up Kracauer’s suggestion to use ornamentation to make the conditions of modern as well as traditional life visible and therefore subject to critique.
In the work of artists such as Adriana Czernin, Brigitte Kowanz, Sarah Morris, Raqib Shaw, Aisha Khalid, Mona Hatoum or Parastou Forouhar, ornamentation is given a voice on different levels, such as physicality, eros, violence, cultural differences, and the rhythms of modern and traditional life, and reveals its seductive power to touch upon deeper layers that lie behind the wall of the abstract beauty of the ornament.
What these artists all share is their approach of use this seductive power of ornamental beauty with a very clear intention in mind. In this exhibition, ornamentation emerges not as a hollow decoration, but rather as an allegory of the collective modern existence within mass society, and the artists use the ornament as a powerful tool for critique and rebellion. Its beauty attracts the attention of the viewers. It encourages them to look closer, in order to expose collective patterns of social standardization, brutality, and suppression of otherness in its details. According to Kracauer, “People who are separated from the community, who consider themselves singular personalities with their own distinctive souls, do not fit in to these patterns.” “The Power of Ornament”, at the Orangery, Lower Belvedere demands that one looks closer, and not to look away. (wh/jn)