Those looking for a brief reprieve from contemporary culture may find solace in the New Museum’s “1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, No Star.” The show surveys the New York art world in 1993, which as this show tells it, may not be much better than what we’ve got now, but was at least more open about its displeasure with the status quo. It is a raw, imperfect exhibition whose narrative is unusually informed by the route one takes through the museum, and it is worth every minute you can spend on it.
I began on the fifth floor, a level recently described as the “Info Annex” by Postmaster’s Magda Sawon in a tweet. Given the size of the exhibition space and education carpeting, pretty much everything assembled by show curators Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, Jenny Moore, and Margot Norton is seen as secondary. That’s a real shame, because the arrangement of material was more thoughtful than it may appear. Here, a row of 12 CRT screen TVs line the gallery wall (one for each month of the year), flashing text blurbs about important pop culture, political, and world events, offering viewers a real sense of the dominant medium and issues at the time.
Nearby hangs a mildly grating suite of black-and-white celebrity-type portraits of artists in the show by Lina Bertucci. They offer a reasonable frame for the show and the time, a point also made by some smart bookending; at one end of the room we see the future, an early online art community on a computer screen—Wolfgang Staehle’s “The Thing” BBS login screen. On the other, we see the past; Alex Bag’s Untitled (Spring 1994), a 30-minute video that chronicles the life of a character obsessed with TV. It’s exactly the kind of concise visual statement about a time only art can make.
All this is a great entry point to the show, which one floor down, moves on to contemplating life and death. Here, Rudolf Stingel’s orange, room-sized rug covers the floor, its brilliant color marred as visitors tread across its surface throughout the course of the show. The piece is a lasting document of action, whereas Felix Gonzales-Torres’ string of light bulbs Untitled (Couple) are a fading monument to life and love.
A black-and-white print of a bird in the sky by Gonzales-Torres cover the walls on this floor and overhead Kristin Oppenheim softly croons "Sail on Sailor." The original piece is an upbeat song about perseverance by The Beach Boys, but Oppenheim’s fragile voice, which repeatedly recites the chorus, transforms the pop song into a funeral. It’s poignant, beautiful, and impossible to forget.
Still more death lurks on the floor below; Gregg Bordowitz’s documentary on the AIDs crisis is the first piece one sees upon descending. "As a 23-year old faggot, I get no affirmation from my culture,” says Bordowitz at one point. “I see issues that affect my life—the issues raised by AIDS being considered in ways that will probably end my life." Meanwhile, in a series of photographs by Nan Goldin, an image of a man’s arm so shrunken from illness you can see the bone—pokes out of a hospital bed in a nearby series of photographs by Nan Goldin. They document a couple, one of whom is dying from AIDs. In 1993, the world is terrible.
The following gallery transitions to art exploring the theme of values and power structures. Charles Ray’s Family Romance, a sculpture in which a nuclear family of four is nude, holding hands, and exactly the same height. Like many critics, I’ve seen this sculpture more times than I can count, but the lack of hierarchy between family members never stops creeping me out. The only distinguishing characteristic between the children and parents is pubic hair, breasts and a whole lot of baby fat.
It’s a great piece, and far more disconcerting than Paul McCarthy’s famed "Cultural Gothic," which is on view in the next room. The kinetic sculpture depicts a boy dry humping a goat with the father looking on. Periodically, both the goat and the boy look to the father for approval. By description alone, the work sounds like a terrifying disruption of American values, but it hardly achieves any of that. Everyone is wearing blue khakis, and nothing bad actually happens. Ultimately, "Cultural Gothic" does little more than add decorum to an abject act, making the sculpture impossible to care about.
Lutz Bacher’s humorous video loop of William Kennedy Smith saying “I did have my penis” does better on that front, but that may not be saying much. Smith was on trial for rape, and while he was found not guilty, he’s been in and out of court for sexual harassment charges ever since. As a viewer, it’s not hard to deduce that Bacher thinks Kennedy Smith is a dick. The video edit is both hostile and juvenile, suggesting the guy might have lost his penis and for the humanness of that response, we’re also reminded that a lot of 1993 was about frustration at our failure to produce solutions to problems.
We see some of that on the second floor as well—Derek Jarman’s self portrait using only blue and regaling the filmmaker’s experience with AIDS after he went blind, for example—but those works have the feel of work sandwiched within a larger overview of the gallery scene. It’s a tough transition from the other floors, which feel more guided by curatorial vision.
Take the room by Andres Serrano, Ann Hamilton, Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin. What these four artists have in common is anybody’s guess; Peyton draws celebrities, Serrano photographs dead people, Currin sexualizes women with paint, and Hamilton burned the words out books.
The exhibition is hodgepodge at best--and frustrating for it--but it still offers a look at some of the early work by artists now well established. It’s worth noting that Currin and Serrano showed greater promise than they would ultimately deliver; for all their aesthetic beauty, Serrano’s large morgue photographs of grey hands and lacerated feet are pretty disturbing. He went on to beautify different kinds of animal shit and members of the Klu Klux Klan. Currin, for his part, produced lone mysterious paintings of wiry girls in bed, and is now best known for his surfacey paintings of porn. Peyton’s work hasn’t changed much, and pretty much anything Hamilton’s done is better than a leftover prop that tells us little about the original work. It’s one of the few pieces in the exhibition that seem unnecessary.
Knowing all this history makes the exhibition more interesting, but it’s not easily accessible to anyone but insiders. For that reason, it felt good to finish my tour one door over with Nari Ward’s installation. The warehouse is filled with hundreds of dirty, abandoned strollers found in Harlem, and “Amazing Grace” plays overhead. It’s sad, it’s hopeful, it’s terrifying, and you feel all that the minute you walk in the door. I can’t say it was a pleasant feeling, but somehow, that seemed like exactly the right note to end on.
NYC 1993, New Museum