PHOENIX RISING: NYC 1993 Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star
THE NEW MUSEUM | FEBRUARY 13 – MAY 26, 2013
Memory can’t help but lead one through the 1993 show at the New Museum, even if one was too young to be part of it. (After all, as is stated in the catalogue, the curators make a point of telling us they were too young to be present in New York City at the time.) This existential absence may be the cause of the only big misstep of this otherwise historically resonant show: the ham-handed and sensational title, misleadingly hip, used more for sensational effect than the song’s deep relevance to the period or work in the exhibition.
Unlike Younger Than Jesus, also curated by Massimiliano Gioni (along with Lauren Cornell and Laura Hoptman), this full museum exhibition (the largest in its history) is able to break through the airless exhibition rooms of the space. The choice to house Nari Ward’s heartbreaking corral of abandoned strollers, collected over a year in Harlem (“Amazing Grace” 1992-93), in a separate annex honors the mood and real-life-shit of that moment. The piece, originally shown in an unused firehouse near Frederick Douglass Parkway, features undulating rows of soiled strollers packed and roped together with fire hose. Shaped to mime the hull of the middle passage, the repeated motifs evoke a visceral feeling of homelessness, poverty, and the struggling mothers of New York’s streets who all but “disappeared” under the stewardship of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, elected on November 2, 1993.
Meanwhile, David Hammons’s decapitated hoodie (“In the Hood,”1993), hangs like a piece of flayed skin on a blank white wall, in a gesture towards the coldness of minimalism. The work resonates not only with the endangered African-American male, but the ghastly shooting of the adolescent Trayvon Martin in 2012. Cady Noland’s “Vince Foster,” (1993) reminds us of the cynical side of Clintonism.
Politics and “content” are the defining conversations of 1993, as the October editors discuss in the roundtable published in the catalogue (reiterated in the reprinting of essays by Thelma Golden, Nicolas Bourriaurd, J. Hoberman, Frances Bonami, Simon Taylor, Laura Cottingham, and Judith Butler.) It is in this year that race, class, queer politics, feminism, AIDS, autobiography, and identity politics all screamed at the more conservative art world and the Whitney Biennial became the talking point of art world chatter. In this context it is of note that the curators chose not to include the Rodney King video, whose presence in the 1993 Biennial so rattled the lines between art and politics. In this way, although historical in nature, there is something oddly ahistorical about the show. It lacks an argument (which for some, may also be its strength). Timelines are presented with so much detail that one loses focus of just what it is about this moment that “changed everything.”
Nonetheless, the kind of art produced by the feminism of the time generates a welcome energy in the work of Sue Williams, “Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn?” (1992); Cheryl Donegan’s conceptually hilarious “Head” (1993); Nicole Eisenman’s ghoulish “Hanging Birth” (1993); and Lutz Bacher’s crack-up funny video loop, “My Penis” (1992), portraying the memorably distasteful William Kennedy Smith mouthing “my penis” into eternity. Humor is offset by pain and anger in Gregg Bordowitz’s “Fast Trip, Long Drop” (1994), a politically charged slapstick confessional in the spirit of Yvonne Rainer (who appears in the film discussing her own mortality as a breast cancer survivor with the young, H.I.V. infected Bordowitz). Let us not forget that Bordowitz was one of the founding members of ACT UP, undoubtedly one of the most effective fusions of art and activism the art world has ever achieved.
As for the devastation of AIDS that defined that time, nothing trumps Derek Jarman’s film, “Blue”(1993). (Although Nan Goldin’s almost perfect “Gilles and Gotscho, Paris” (1992-93), shoots an arrow straight at the heart.) One sits isolated in a room before the formally minimal, 79 minutes of pulsing Yves Klein Blue while listening to the first person account (spoken by Nigel Terry) of Jarman going blind and dying of AIDS (he died four months after the film was released). Dying also confronts us in Hannah Wilke’s “Intra-Venus #7¾February 20-August 8, 1992”(from “Intra-Venus,” 1992-93), where two huge unsentimental portraits of the famously beautiful Wilke, bald from two months of chemotherapy, meet us with an unfaltering gaze that simply says, “Yes this is what happens.” She too will die, coincidently, also four months later of complications from lymphoma. Death and “the ends” of many things, as Frederic Jameson put it in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism in 1991, hangs like an evening fog over everything, even in the piercingly handwritten yellow note book diaries of Sean Lander’s “1991-94, Improbable History.”
But, in 1993 the certainty of death was changing. The AIDS “cocktail” was introduced in 1992 (the same year David Wojnarowicz died), followed in 1995 with the development of the protease inhibitor Saquinavir. It was a time, as Gregg Bordowitz said in conversation, when “Suddenly I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life because I realized, I wasn’t going to die anymore.” Life and a future were breaking through the soiled earth of the death sentence. As if to mirror this sense of renewal and possibility, the didacticism and message-oriented art of rage and raw critique began to switch from the troubled earth to what, previously, had been banned in early phases of critical theory and post-structuralist critique: myth, chaos (Jason Rhoades), and cosmologies, epitomized by the stunningly fractured, strange-being’d storytelling of Matthew Barney.
It is especially difficult to convey, 20 years later, just how out of the box Barney’s work was at the time. “Drawing Restraint 7” won the Aperto Prize in the 1993 Venice Biennale. The previous year, Barney exhibited “Ottoshaft,” the middle section of his trilogy “Jim Otto Suite” (featuring his mother as Al Davis), and the following year the first of his 5-part “The Cremaster Cycle”(1994-2002). Yes, between Bordowitz, and Barney something was changing. Call it the phoenix rising from the ashes, but Barney’s use of myth and world-building paralleled a whole new (school?) of emergent cosmologists. As Matthew Ritchie put it, discussing his own work of the mid ’90s:
Any discussion of my personal narrative must be closely linked to the personalized global practices that emerged in 1995–2000, where cosmologies and mythologies were a common tool for artists as divergent as Liam Gillick, Gregor Schneider, Manfred Pernice, Andrea Zittel, Kara Walker, and of course Matthew Barney and his Yale classmates Katy Schimert, Michael Grey, and Michael Rees.
One need only juxtapose Nari Ward and David Hammons with the then emerging Ellen Gallagher, whose abstract remaking of the language of minstrelsy is also part of this moment of burgeoning generative critique. In this sense, the inclusion of a period computer featuring the pioneering non-profit message board, The Thing, might be the sleeper of the exhibition. For this was not just a moment of deaths, disease, bombings (in the form of the first World Trade Center attack), racial and ethnic cleansings (Bosnia), and the raw appraisals of identity politics, but of new networks and narratives. Here the exhibition meets it’s makers, for it is fitting that those too young to be there at the time, as opposed to the players, rise to craft this layered curatorial tale of a world lived only 20 years ago.
235 Bowery // NY, NY
ContributorThyrza Nichols Goodeve
THYRZA NICHOLS GOODEVE is the Senior Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.