4.12 / Review

From New York:  NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star

By Ellen Tani March 26, 2013

Framing an exhibition as a time capsule of any year is a risky proposition, but in NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, the New Museum of Contemporary Art goes big, presenting the year 1993 as a fulcrum for countless developments in art and technology and the global proliferation of economic, political, and cultural issues that in many ways define the terms of contemporary life for its audience. It was a year lived largely in a mediated fashion: the twin forces of globalization and a young World Wide Web bridged virtual and physical worlds through various media—computer screens, newspapers, televisions, and films. On the museum’s fifth floor, these media deliver a litany of events from 1993: the famously political Whitney Biennial, then-president Bill Clinton’s inauguration, a march on Washington for AIDS research, the embrace of neoliberalism, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. This is a history that is still being interpreted and resonates with the present.

Occupying all five floors of the museum, NYC 1993 offers a bite of almost everything, from Young British Artists making it in New York and New York artists appearing in international biennials, to a handful of pieces from major New York exhibitions. Photography, assemblage, installation, and video steal the show; painting and sculpture, as traditionally defined, are scarce. The objects exhumed by the curators are arranged as they might have naturally congealed over twenty years’ time. Some gravitate thematically around consumerism, eschatology, sexual freedoms, and the cult of celebrity. Other pieces stand alone in full sensory presence: Derek Jarman’s film Blue (1993)—a static saturation of deep Yves-Klein blue—mesmerizes with its narrative of the artist’s eroding sight from AIDS-related complications and his realization, as he neared death, that “the shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life.”1 Janine Antoni’s sensuous Lick and Lather (1993), fourteen self-portrait busts composed of chocolate and soap that the artist manually eroded using her tongue and hand, frames beauty as a timeless yet ephemeral pleasure, linked unexpectedly with female labor. Antoni expresses with scent what some artists seek to achieve with color, and she brings sculpture into contact with the body in a manner that feels contemporary.

A grand and haunting installation of several works transforms the entire fourth floor into a unique environment. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s light-bulb strands, Untitled (couple) (1993), hang from the cavernous ceiling, a beacon juxtaposed against two grainy images of birds in flight, blown up to the room’s vast scale. Kristin Oppenheim’s sound piece, Sail on Sailor (1993), conjures a hypnotic calm, subduing a bright-orange carpet piece by Rudolf Stingel. United, these three works create one of the most magical spaces in the exhibition, silencing the chatter of viewers, yielding no explicit suggestions of their context, and making no claims to representation. As a curatorial-gesture-turned-environmental-installation, this room offers a moment of silence among the clamor of the other floors.

The exhibition, in the New Museum director Lisa Phillips’s words, “describes a history that was already contested at the time and will continue to transform and rewrite itself into the future.”2 Capturing a shifting history is a necessarily messy job, and the diverse range of viewer responses to the exhibition accentuates the complexity of that moment. I was ten years old and living in Minneapolis in 1993. I knew much less about the New York art world than I did about the newly constructed Mall of America, a structure large enough to fit seven Yankee Stadiums inside. It claimed to be “The Ultimate One-Stop Shop,” including an indoor amusement park, an early-bird walking club, a wedding chapel, and an underground aquarium. It was a space for celebrity cameos, leisure, learning, and life. Tellingly, this one-stop-shop quality pervades NYC 1993 by the very nature of its curatorial design; in a museum setting, this openness is both liberating and leaky.

Félix Gonzaléz-Torres. Untitled (couple), 1993; installation view, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey R. Winter, and the New Museum, New York.
Janine Antoni. Lick and Lather, 1993; installation view, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and the New Museum, New York.

While there’s a kind of freedom in abandoning thematic rubrics, one is left wondering just whose historical territory this exhibition seeks to parse from the collected fragments on display: Is this a snapshot of the New York art world? Or does it go beyond that context, seeking to examine the production of art history or the art market?

Nari Ward’s installation in the New Museum’s 231 Bowery space, while stunning, reveals the failures of the museum’s efforts to periodize a moment that is defined by historical slipperiness. In this work, more than three hundred empty, timeworn baby strollers, salvaged from Harlem and bound by fire hoses, demand reverence with the help of a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing “Amazing Grace.” While it is a thrill to see this work, which hasn’t been shown since 1993, Ward once said that it wouldn’t have the same meaning if installed in a downtown gallery.3 What meaning, then, has it acquired here, in a gallery that is very much downtown?

The museum’s aim—to reconstruct “a particular historical moment in the form of a synchronic portrait of the New York art world”—is satisfied only partially by what NYC 1993 offers.4 There are recent works in the exhibition that stake their claims in the vitality of 1993. For example, the painter Byron Kim’s color-field wall work and self-portrait, Me Moi-Peau (The Skin Ego) (1993), which was displayed in the New Museum’s 1993 Skin Deep exhibition, is not included but is replaced by After Alice (2013), an homage to Skin Deep’s promising curator Alice Yang, who died tragically in 1997. Kim’s signature attempt to replicate his subject’s skin color on museum surfaces is as asymptotic as the vexed question of representing race in general: one can come only so close to the truth of it.

If the exhibition is truly a self-portrait of New York’s art world in 1993, it feels more like a portrait on a mirrored surface. In the way that it frames what the art world was, it reveals what the art world is. Indeed, the catalog discloses that the exhibition is “a kind of collective fiction.”5 The art historian Pamela Lee notes in her recent book Forgetting the Art World that the drive to represent contemporary art worlds lacks the critical distance necessary to actually do so, for “the will to reflect on such art world phenomena cannot escape its own mirror image, a globalizing mise-en-abime that incessantly reproduces its own representation even as it desires to stand outside it.”6 The art world, she writes, is a space premised on “a peculiar sense of distance, at once metaphorical and actual,” and she suggests we could learn a lot from bridging the distance between what the art world effectively does and what it exhibits.7

NYC 1993 could have been the first exhibition I’ve seen that truly reveals how art ecosystems amplify different realities—in this case, how the New York art world shaped what things looked like in 1993. But there’s information missing: the influence of key curators and dealers working at that time and the locations of their galleries and institutions. Byron Kim’s After Alice, whose chromatic depth and material flatness taps into both the history of painting and its intimate relationship with museum walls, may well capture the spirit of the exhibition more successfully than the entire show. Inspired by a rising Asian American curator who presciently coordinated a series of public panels at the New Museum on “The Ideology of the Margin,” After Alice may be the true portrait of the art world—what it was and what it could have been. Its humanity brings us close to understanding an art world that we hardly know through the exhibition.

 

NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is on view at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York, through May 26, 2013

Notes

  1. Derek Jarman, Blue: Text of a Film by Derek Jarman (Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1994), 28; quoted in Tim Lawrence, “AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and Plurality in Derek Jarman's Blue,” Social Text 52/53 (Autumn/Winter 1997): 242.
  2. Lisa Phillips, NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2013), 7.
  3. Nina Reyes, “Neighborhood Report: Harlem; Finding Beauty in Babyless Strollers,” New York Times, December 12, 1993, http://www.nytimes.com/1993/12/12/nyregion/neighborhood-report-harlem-finding-beauty-in-babyless-strollers.html.
  4. Phillips, 6.
  5. Phillips, 8.
  6. Pamela Lee, Forgetting the Art World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 14.
  7. Lee, 17.

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