Wait around long enough and fashions tend to come full circle. Every decade seems to have its retro twin. The pattern started in the 1970s with the 1950s rock’n'roll revival and it continued through the 1980s which was obsessed with the 1960s and the 1990s obsessed with the 1970s. True to form and right on cue, the noughties kicked off with a 1980s renaissance. For the people who lived through the 1980s, it’s enjoyably but at times disconcerting to watch the distortions and style mangling of the attempted 80s revival.
Since the 80s has had such a huge come back, it was worth celebrating in the eyes of the Powerhouse Museum. An observation that is most interesting from the exhibition is how much of the era has yet to be rediscovered or recycled. The show is perfect timing considering it’s soon to be 2011 and according to the 20-year rule of revivals, fashion and trends are about to revisit the 1990s. So the Powerhouse Museum is jumping on the 80s popularity bandwagon by bringing back the 80s to Sydney with an exhibition displaying the good and the bad of the decade vividly remembered for it’s over the top excess.
The 80s Are Back presents how Australia spent its leisure time; the music listened to, the clothes worn and the politics of the 1980s. It attempts to explore Australian life and popular culture in the 80s, remembering the styles, trends and subcultures and how they found expression in fashion, design, music, film and television. Scattered with familiar personalities and nostalgia, The 80s Are Back endeavours to examine why the 80s was a decade not easily forgotten and hence the recent revival of 80s style. Considering a new generation are looking to the decade for inspiration in fashion and music and hold the era as something to be revered, the exhibition didn’t hold many surprises nor capture a nostalgic or déjà vu feeling. It was dull and unimaginative.
Drawing on the Powerhouse Museum’s extensive collection and complemented by signature items borrowed from collectors and entertainers, the exhibition tries to revisit the era’s fashion, toys and fads, video games and technology, architecture and design trends, parties, live music and memorable events. The 80s Are Back features more than 800 objects including images, artefacts, outfits and audio-visuals. Its 30 years since the beginning of the 80s and it’s pretty clear that there’s a new generation looking to that decade for inspiration. With all this in mind, it would be easily assumed that the show is spectacular with an insight that is very rarely seen of the 80s, after all only a snippet of pop culture is generally worn or played to death at present.
In the 80s, Australia was prosperous and expressing its emerging identity with confidence through a variety of flourishing cultural forms. It was a fertile time for new ideas and a period of creative ferment. In current popular imagination, the 80s are defined by one notion above all: excess. It was a period of economic boom sandwiched between two recessions. This was the era of deregulation, Reagan and Thatcher and Keating and Hawke were deregulating the Australian economy. It was a period of prosperity and consumption and flourishing culture. Baby boomers raised on hippie values ceased to have exclusive control over youth culture in the 80s, and the next generation defined themselves in opposition to them, embracing style and affluence. These themes, and the magnitude of the 80s influence on how we developed as a nation, is lacking in the exhibition. This is an exhibition for Generation X and their youth, acknowledging their favourite shows, movies, music, video games and fads and also to remind them of what was going on in the world at the time. Unfortunately, the exhibition is a little lean on the artefacts and a little cliché when it comes to the choice of displays. The space is underutilized and predominantly catering to the post Generation Y kids.
The exhibition features products and trends now regarded as quintessentially 80s, from the Rubik’s Cube and Sony Walkman, big hair and power dressing, to pub rock, electronic music and dance parties. I overheard a conversation between mother and daughter of how a cassette player works…the child was perplexed to say the least. See costumes worn by Boy George, Kylie Minogue, Chrissy Amphlett, Michael Hutchence and Split Enz, as well as memorabilia including instruments from bands such as INXS, Pseudo Echo, Icehouse, Men at Work and Midnight Oil. Classic clips from film, television and music video are screened revealing the familiar sights and sounds that dominated the era, from Dogs in Space to Puberty Blues, Adam and the Ants to The Go-Betweens. This was the best part. The music and its volume were great, the clips were wonderful and it took you back to where you were when you first heard that song. Memories were flowing at this point. Visitors can step into a music cube and relive popular 80s entertainment, including a set by renowned DJ Stephen Ferris or a scene from one of the infamous RAT dance parties that regularly took over venues like Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. This great beginning promises good things to come.
A catwalk showcases the essential 80s looks, revealing a decade of varying and extreme styles from padded shouldered power suits and glittering gold lamé evening wear to high waisted acid wash jeans, fluoro-coloured aerobics gear and ruffled rah-rah skirts. Through personal stories on mini TV screens and hand held earphones, The 80s Are Back delves into the youth subcultures that were setting themselves apart throughout the decade, from Goth, Punk and Mod to the Hip Hop phenomenon which blossomed in the western suburbs of Sydney. The locals who are interviewed are entertaining and attention holding and the clips are each only about 10 minutes long so as not to bore the visitor. It’s a great personal touch to each subculture, and a nice piece of oral history to engage the younger visitor.
There’s one object which speaks volumes about the 80s which is the AIDS memorial quilt. AIDS was a huge disaster in the 80s and later in the decade the response of the health authorities and the response of the gay community, really made Australia a leader in AIDS prevention, it brought those gay issues out into the open. There are nearly 100 quilts. Each is three metres square in size and has nine panels on it, which display names or words related to those who have died of AIDS.
The ‘must have’ merchandise and toys that swept through the decade are on display. The evolution of gaming and technology through the 80s is present, from Pac-Man and Space Invaders to Atari and the Nintendo ‘Game & Watch’. The Unique interactive displays enable visitors to re-play their favourite retro video games including Galaga, Donkey Kong and Frogger. Then toys like Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony; My Child and Rainbow Brite. This was the boring and disappointing part. There was so much underutilised space both in cabinets and on the walls. There is potential to have a lot more of this type of memorabilia on display but it was instead sparse, dark and annoying. Since it is at the end of the exhibition, visitor’s attention is already waning so to have such a lack lustre ending is disappointing and ruins the good parts of The 80s Are Back.
Some of the era’s most defining moments also are remembered, with a year by year timeline highlighting Australian and international politics, news and current affairs, sport and events, including the America’s Cup, anti-nuclear war movement, Franklin Dam, Live Aid, Azaria Chamberlain case, fall of the Berlin Wall, AIDS crisis and the Bicentennial celebrations. This was ok put a little bland, and one thing that can be said about the 80s is that it wasn’t bland. It was way to dark and way too tedious. There were so many world changing events in the 80s, this should have been highlighted. The average teen would have completely scanned over this part, in fact they were.
The final section of the exhibition explores the Neo-80s. The styles and sounds of the 80s have made a dramatic return to the mainstream of fashion and pop in the past twelve months, from the pages of Vogue to the music and video of artists such as Empire of the Sun and Lady Gaga. The influence of 80s music and style has been growing for almost a decade, fuelled by the warm nostalgic feelings of those who grew up in the 80s Generation X, but also by the curiosity of a much younger generation.
Peter Cox is the curator of Australian History at the Powerhouse and the main driver behind the content and ideas of The 80s Are Back. Mr Cox describes these years as the ‘golden years’ of one’s life. They’re the years that you go back to. You’re forming your identity, and that’s built around the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the TV shows you watch; the movies you go to, the computers you use, then events that happen in the world. Cox says:
The collection we have is just phenomenal; it’s huge, but particularly strong with the 80s because the Powerhouse kind of opened in the 80s. While the Museum had originally focused on science and design, when they moved into the Powerhouse in the eighties, they extended this focus to Australian social history. While people of all ages should engage with the show, the main target audience are people who had their formative years in the eighties. They were possibly in their teens or twenties. (Cox: 2010 http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/)
There you have it. The 80s Are Back is really for Generation X visitors. It has outstanding visual and audio appeal with fantastic music and great outfits. It includes most of the 80s subcultures including Mod, Skinhead and Goth which can be forgotten as being a large part of the 1980s. In each section, the visitor will gaze upon and interact with objects and ephemera that represent the culture and events of the decade. While these predominately reflect the Australian experience of the 80s, it incorporates well the international influences. Overall the exhibition was disappointing. The sections were disconnected from each other, interactive exhibits were lacking in numbers surprisingly since this is one of the things the Powerhouse is renowned for having. It was lacking in information panels on some artefacts but then excessive in others. Considering the amount of advertising the exhibition as done, there was an expectation that the show would be just as spectacular. Unfortunately this one was lacking in bravado and although exciting at the beginning, second-rate at the end.