NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is the New Museum’s crash course in the recent history of contemporary art in New York. The exhibition positions 1993 as a signifier for mass cultural change: the thesis being that the events of this year irrevocably directed culture towards its manifestation in 2013. NYC 1993 seems just as concerned, however, with the ways that we continuously look backwards in the present for clues on how to act now. It is not that 1993 simply “jetted” us towards the future, but rather that our present is textured by a consistent obsession with culling artifacts from the past in order to render itself legitimate.
NYC 1993 is a baroque catalogue: a kind of “greatest hits” of high and low New York art. The impressive roster of artists pack every floor of the New Museum, spilling out into the side stairwells. The art in the show can be called “good,” absolutely, but we are supposed to understand this already; its perceived worth is why it was selected. As the exhibition’s catalogue specifies, the show is comprised of either art that was popular in 1993 or work from that time by artists who gained notoriety thereafter.
NYC 1993 fixates on context. It displaces works from their original orientation, arranging them in co-informative groupings within the contemporary museum’s framework. The vast majority of pieces are accompanied by informational plaques about the work’s genesis and history. Wandering through what felt like a maze of “good art”, I started getting hung up on reading every plaque, pressured against the danger of not considering the work “completely.” Unable to simply consider the work aesthetically, I was afraid I would miss something. This terror of “missing something” haunts this exhibition’s project in culling together a variety of cultural parts in the service of getting the whole picture – or at least a distilled image – of whatever “1993” means.
Much of the content in NYC 1993 originally performed a deep cultural incision. Cheryl Donegan’s Head is a short video of the artist sensually licking up milk out of a gaping hole in a bright green jug and spitting it onto the pink wall of her studio. Adjacent from this video, Lutz Bacher’s My Penis is a looped video clip from the rape trial testimony of William Kennedy Smith, in which he must eternally repeat the words “I did have my penis,” wincing. These concentrated acts of subversion become sterilized against the white walls of the Museum. Though their content remains intact, these videos feel censored as they are relegated to the realm of dated relic. The context of the museum forecloses the possibility of shock, and thus of subversive interpretation.
Karen Kilimnik’s video piece Heathers is presented on a small video monitor in one of the museum’s stairwells. She filmed a television, re-recording, slowing down, freeze-framing and rewinding original footage from Heathers, a 1988 cult film about teen culture and social rebellion. Kilimnik gratuitously re-works some of the film’s most emotionally taut moments. Across from Kilimnik’s installation, Todd Haynes’ image sourcebook for the film Safe sits open on a pedestal to be leafed through by viewers. The film itself is nowhere to be found. We are saturated by the imagery surrounding a moment: that which romanticizes, embellishes and fabricates it. These source images (abandoned gas stations; a desert sunset) signify the artistic product of the film itself as they stand in for its absent body.
The museum’s top floor features a wall of Samsung televisions looping a constant feed of events that punctuated the cultural progression of the titular year. For all its interest in the important “moments” of the featured year, NYC 1993 seems most concerned with the representation of history rather than the history itself. Being enveloped in reminders of cultural memory provides an emotional feedback in which we can revel, as personal memories of the recent past are integrated with the socially significant. We feel a kind of personal validation, as if some kind of historical weight can be afforded to our collective fantasies about what has happened and what continues to happen to our lives.
Gregg Bordowitz‘s Fast Trip, Long Drop, an experimental autobiography about the artist’s battle with AIDS, is a salient example of how this re-working of personal history might stop feeling simply masturbatory and transcend into an empowering political position. Bordowitz describes his despair in living while slowly dying from a condition that to this day is largely ignored and stigmatized. In one interview, he relates a rage fantasy he has about picking up a prostitute just so he can infect him with AIDS. Bordowitz explains, desperately, “I need to feel that my fantasies still have power. If our fantasies cease to be compelling, even to us, then we’ve lost.” Bordowitz’s feverishly real video confession is one of the few moments in the show that marks how essential this personal fabrication of history can be for daily survival.
NYC 1993 is a show persistently informed by the shadow of the original. Nostalgia itself is defined by a necessary mutation of the subject. Through the exhibition’s comprehensive range of art, a variety of precious moments are extended, chopped and screwed into a new past: one that was never actually experienced. There was a past, but the past that we wistfully recollect and embellish never existed. Rather than desiring the past we had, we long for the one we remember. NYC 1993 charters this uncanny valley, glossing it over so that we might move more smoothly between fetishistic and collective re-imaginings, surfing the fluid chain between the then and now.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is on view at the New Museum through May 26, 2013.