Judging by its recent surveys of current British art, the Tate is not sure whether it is coming or going. Its Turner Prize exhibition, which closed mid-January, was characterized by the arch postmodernism of Goshka Macuga and Mark Leckey, who both weave convoluted narratives out of direct art-historical references. This is art of the culture-studies industry, claustrophobically self-reflexive and offering few windows out of the museum. Its integrity lies in its rootedness and its erudition. In contrast, the 3rd Tate Triennial, which opened two weeks later, heralded the end of postmodernism. Curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, co-founder of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and titled “Altermodern,” the exhibition claimedto represent the 28 artists it included as untethered agents navigating unlimited time and space. In practice, Bourriaud’s post-postmodernism manifested itself as a pluralistic weightlessness. If he ceremoniously cast aside postmodernism’s leveling of the past into an undifferentiated field of available historical material, he retained its apolitical rejection of the possibility of any single authentic position. We were left with what resembled a series of self-enclosed games, each with its own internal set of rules.

The effect of Bourriaud’s exhibition was to skim a narrative of flighty rootlessness from works that, seen in proper context, would appear less cavalier. The hand-me-down clothing and prison cages that surround Franz Ackermann’s paintings are rudimentary signifiers intended to attach political consciousness—of the plight of refugees—to what are essentially brightly colored abstractions. Simon Starling, having sent a poor-quality image of a desk originally designed by Francis Bacon in the 1930s to cabinetmakers in three cities, here exhibited the varying results. This ludic globe-trotting came across as exasperatingly self-indulgent. Globalization was the choice catchphrase of the late ’90s, and Ackermann’s and Starling’s inclusion in “Altermodern” had the curious double effect of dating their work and prompting the question of what this show added to the debate around the topic.

Tacita Dean’s The Russian Ending (2001) is a series of prints made from old postcards, found in flea markets, of lugubrious landscape images, over which she has scrawled comments in her seductively effete handwriting. The poetic interjections attempt to compensate rhetorically for what the pictures fail to convey. Previously, Dean has referred to the work of the German writer W.G. Sebald as an inspiration and reference, and her presence here seemed intended to bolster the exhibition’s themes by invoking the writer’s imaginary and literal wanderings across a geographical and historical Europe. But whereas Sebald’s prose is both steeped in specific history and alive to the unknowableness of the past, Dean’s historical melancholy appeared portentous and kitsch, dealing in a generalized romantic pathos.

Darren Almond can be both an existential minimalist, probing the mysteries of time and space, and a Romantic wanderer. His films and sculptural installations tend to unsettle our habitual sense of history and location with a scientific, documentary rigor. But Bourriaud’s selections, from Almond’s ongoing series of landscape photographs—shot in the middle of the night in exotic locations using long exposure times to create otherworldly lighting—amounted to a biased view of the artist as a kind of flashy tourist.

Bourriaud tendentiously favored the illustrative over the patiently interrogative. The Projection Room, a section of Mike Nelson’s Triple Bluff Canyon (2004), is a characteristically cluttered interior space that appears to be balanced between the constructed fiction of a still life and a reconstruction of a soiled room, humid with lived-in accretions. It is, in fact, a re-creation of the artist’s South London studio. Atypically for Nelson, this work allows only visual access, making the room into a sealed cabinet of curiosities from which a projector cast grainy images of a lecture on conspiracy theories onto the entire far wall of the Tate’s Duveen gallery. Further along the hall, we were invited to lounge on Spartacus Chetwynd’s purpose-made cushions in front of her bank of TV screens, which showed recordings of arty revels—themselves somewhere between staged performances and spontaneous antics. Everything in this installation was reduced to a sign for a particular pop-cultural moment, from the flowery beanbag chairs to the “trippy” multiple-screen imagery. In conjunction with Chetwynd’s work, the subtler ambiguities of Nelson’s Projection Room tended to register as a collection of stage props left behind by a traveling circus.                                

Photo above: Spartacus Chetwynd: Hermito’s Children, 2008, monitors and cushions; at the Tate Triennial.