Written by Sarah Adams
“The ironizing of nostalgia, in the very act of its invoking, may be one way the postmodern has of taking responsibility for such responses by creating a small part of the distance necessary for reflective thought about the present as well as the past.”
Negotiating nostalgia in the wake of recent history seems a tricky territory. We can long for “the good old days” prior to obesity epidemics, celebrity derelicts, and looming ecological ruin, but never without the tainted understanding that we are intentionally fabricating our idyllic histories. We know that our past was nothing more than symptomatic groundwork for our imperfect present, and we have been conditioned through apathy, nihilism, and disillusionment to know that our nostalgia is convoluted and likely based in our fear of the future, yet we dwell regardless. Like a child wildly imagining the future, we wildly imagine the past, and hopelessly reaching for one crystallized moment of good, we create our beautiful memories.
Sprouting out of a postmodern archetype and into a new millennia of extreme and disparaging self-awareness, our distilled sentiments of nostalgia can only be received by first endowing them with precise measures of a contemporary force-field, irony. Irony, however, seems to have evolved into an idiom apart from the proverbial shoe-less shoe salesman that grade school taught us. Irony has somehow seeped into our general consciousness, situating itself intoour everyday responses, causing us to see droll contradictions and quaint paradoxes at almost every turn.
Being connoisseurs in all things ironic, we are keenly able to recognize its victims, and have adapted its uses, protecting our own sincerities from becoming nothing more than fodder for droves of savage cynics (a cannibalistic group to which we belong and whose subtleties we know well). This isn’t to say we shrug our sentiments before anyone else can — exposing our stripped and shivering affections and laughing at their inadequacies to prove we are, rest assuredly, in the know (although this is sometimes the case, but is a practice unappreciated by the true savages). More likely, we are simply so well versed in the nuances of irony that even a knowing wink has become too obvious. A picket fence, familiar only because of television and storybooks, precisely “broken” to reveal an ephemeral world of toy airplanes and golden wheat (Broens’ Fencing Planes); a web of strings indicating a place long forgotten yet precious to the artist (Jung’s Chebudong Project); such productions softly weave through diminutive ironies, at once sincerely representing and elusively exploiting the delicacies of nostalgia.
We have learned the art of exploiting ourselves; the artist presents the world with his or her innermost longings, and rather than propping it with a punch line, simply stares at it like everyone else. If someone were to mention to the artist that the work seemed particularly nostalgic, the artists’ response might be, “Maybe. I suppose. Do you think so?”
Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern.” Methods for the Study of Literature as Cultural Memory, Studies in Comparative Literature 30 (2000): 189-207
-Sarah Adams is an artist and visual arts writer based in Calgary, AB.