In asking how best to characterize and periodize the 1990s, Philip Wegner proposes the “counterintuitive asymmetry” of beginning the decade with the fall of the Berlin wall, an event “which is in fact an ending,” and ending with 9/11, an event which he positions as “the opening of the true post-Cold War global situation” (Life Between Two Deaths, 1989–2001: U.S. Culture in the Long Nineties, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009: 28). The “long 1990s” (1989–2001), Wegner surmises, was a time caught “between two deaths,” a time during which certain kinds of histories (U.S./European geopolitics) were centralized and others made peripheral.
Alexandra Schwartz, curator of contemporary art at the Montclair Art Museum and organizer of Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, whose subsequent tour ended at the Blanton Museum of Art last May (where this author saw it), extended Wegner’s insights into the realm of visual art. Schwartz used Wegner’s notion of the “long 1990s” as a framework, describing in her catalogue introduction the necessary limitations of an exhibition dedicated to a decade that saw an expansion and acceleration of art practice and markets globally, as well the efflorescence of new forms of (im)material practice such as relational aesthetics and net art. The limitations she set for her exhibition were at once productive and curious; Schwartz curated a show that contained “solely . . . art made in the United States” from artists who “made their initial ‘point of entry’ into the art-historical discourse during the 1990s” (10). The careers of several included artists, such as Manuel Ocampo and Gabriel Orozco, rightly complicate a facile notion of “art made in the United States.” Schwartz seemed to push acutely against a rendering of nation as silo, unconnected to the politics or particularities of globalization; indeed, many of the artists represented in Come as You Are were repeatedly programmed into the incipient biennial culture of the 1990s (Shirin Neshat, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Jorge Pardo come to mind). However, I question the second of Schwartz’s limits since such a framing leaves out artists whose careers may have begun earlier but whose work was equally important for art historians and critics in the 1990s. There were no Carrie Mae Weems photographs, Martin Wong paintings, William Pope.L performances, or Louise Bourgeois sculptures, for example, even though the work of all four artists were consistent focal points in writings about the politics of representation and identity in the 1990s.
What holds true for the artists included/excluded also holds true for the otherwise excellent catalogue—all the authors spent most, or part, of their twenties in the 1990s (Schwartz opens her essay by recalling a class visit to the 1993 Whitney Biennial as an undergraduate). But what, I wondered, would an older writer or curator who lived and worked in the 1990s—Margo Machida, Thelma Golden, or Elisabeth Sussman, to name some names—have contributed to a catalogue with the aim of historicizing art made during this important decade? Machida’s career, for example, was launched earlier, and yet she was one of the most tenacious and inventive curators of the decade, as well as a member of the collective Godzilla Asian American Arts Network. This is all to say that Schwartz’s exhibition and catalogue are encomiums on what it was like to be young and make and see art in the 1990s. The title of the exhibition also performs this limit, referencing Nirvana’s 1991 grunge anthem, a song whose lyrics undercut its own corny call for acceptance (“come as you are”) with abjection (“Come doused in mud / soaked in bleach”). Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” aimed squarely at youth culture’s desires to flout codes of normativity.
One of the many things Come as You Are did exceptionally well was to reengage a set of questions posed by artists of the 1990s that might in passing appear to be curious cultural artifacts, but are instead of paramount, continuing importance. Take the case of net art: the fairly recent return to net art’s sonic and visual aesthetics is an urgent enough reason to begin recovering its history in earnest. Born out of a Situationist-tinged aesthetic framework and a hacker’s sense of the internet as an open and free territory (however naive that may now seem), many of the artists who made some of the earliest digital work intuited, but could not fully predict, the rate of acceleration of web-based technologies. Obsolescence was always knocking at the door. Viewed curatorially and historiographically, net art thus continues to pose a set of existential questions for the display and conservation/preservation of contemporary art.
Schwartz curated into Come as You Are some of the best case studies of the net art phenomenon. Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale (2001), in which Keith Obadike’s “blackness” was made available for bidding on eBay, is a wry performance on the socio-cultural mappings of blackness. In addition to historical alignments with chattel slavery and the sale of African American bodies based on bogus physical and psychological criterion, the Obadikes’ description of the item for sale—a text giving permissions, recommendations, and warnings regarding the social meanings of blackness—remains an unfortunately resonant text. Obadike’s “conceptual landscape” was unceremoniously terminated by eBay on the grounds it was “inappropriate,” and so a screen-grab of the artwork became the object displayed on a flat screen monitor (Coco Fusco, “All Too Real: The Tale of an On-Line Black Sale: Coco Fusco interviews Keith Townsend Obadike,” Thing Reviews, bbs.thing.net, September, 2001). The Obadikes’ work, once locatable in its proper online context, is now ossified as a “picture” that raises ontological questions about what the net art object might be and how best to experience it—a welcome problem for curators, conservators, and visitors alike to ponder.
Prema Murthy’s Bindi Girl (1999), a postcolonial feminist work that implicates the viewer as a gazing consumer of Southeast Asian female bodies, was another sterling example of the exhibition’s thesis and of the turn toward net art in the 1990s. Sharp and sarcastic, Bindi Girl is a website with a menu in the form of a vertical line of bindis arranged to mimic a chakra map. There are some familiar website menu options (Bio! Chatroom!) and some unfamiliar ones (Harem! Souvenirs!). A viewer to Come as You Are could click “Souvenirs!” and encounter a store that sold bindis, panties, and goddess prints (all limited editions, naturally) but no way to actually purchase them. Clicking on the “Chat!” bindi revealed a scripted cybersex encounter between the users Sweetheart and Wellhung; rendered in pink html text, their conversation is a deadpan interruption of cybersexual expectations:
>>>Sweetheart: I’m running my fingers through your hair. Now I’m
>>>nibbling your ear.
>>>Wellhung: I suddenly sneeze. Your breasts are covered with spit and
>>>Wellhung: I’m so sorry; Really.
>>>Sweetheart: I’m wiping your phlegm off my breasts with the remains of
>>>Wellhung: I’m taking the sopping wet blouse from you. I drop it with
It only gets more explicit and more abject from there. The text ends with a fire in the cyber mise-en-scène, and with Sweetheart telling Wellhung to “go to hell” and logging off. Murthy’s text is a perfect illustration of an observation made at the time by cultural critic Patrick Califia for the website LesbiaNation.com: “A dirty conversation on the internet usually just makes me feel lonely and depressed” (“Why Cybersex is a Dry F**k (Ahem, Less Than Ideal),” Speaking Sex to Power: The Politics of Queer Sex, San Francisco, CA: Cleis Press, 2002: 383).
I have focused on these two works of net art because they reveal something quite special about the exhibition. Encountering Bindi Girl and Blackness for Sale in the Blanton Museum of Art, surrounded by works that are more frequently brought out as exemplars of 1990s aesthetics (I am thinking of Catherine Opie’s photographs of queer community members (ca. 1993–94), Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather (1993) busts, or one of Pardo’s light works (Vince Robbins, 1997)), was edifying because it helped the viewer get a sense of a rich and complicated field of artistic production. This was not a show chock-full of the usual suspects and their greatest hits; despite the criticism I have leveled against this show for its age-defined exclusions, its inclusions were often pleasantly surprising—a Pepón Osorio couch, A Mis Adorables Hijas (1990), wonkily hung on the wall; Marina Zurkow’s flash animations of super-heroine Braingirl and her side-kick Bagboy (2000–3); and Daniel Joseph Martinez’s velvet paintings of arrests and prisons topped by Situationist terminology (1993). It was in these choices that Schwartz moved most toward an exciting and complicated historiography of the 1990s.
Of note: Evan Garza, then-assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum, added six works specifically for the Blanton’s presentation: two performance videos by Cheryl Donegan and a suite of four works addressing the AIDS pandemic. Although the pandemic began in the 1980s, it was not until the end of 1989 that a new organization called Visual AIDS organized the first Day Without Art, arguably one of the most important and enduring arts-related programs to come out of the AIDS crisis. Garza programmed four works—by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Donald Moffett, and Gran Fury—into the exhibition’s first room, effectively casting a productive, and perhaps corrective, pall over the rest of the exhibition. The works stressed the necessity of direct political action and poetic participation in equal measure. It was a calling forth and a solemn invocation that for some the 1990s was less “Come as You Are” and more “Live Through This.”
Assistant Professor of Critical Studies, Roski School of Art and Design, University of Southern California
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