So now we know: If Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet in the 1980s, the art world, circa 1993, would have spawned it instead. The New Museum’s nostalgia trip “NYC 1993″ surfs through five floors of primordial DIY video epics, outré sex, and self-absorbed bloviating of the sort that, two decades later, are a mere click away. A well-wrought exhibition of uneven quality—the curators limited themselves to art made and exhibited in New York City that year—”NYC 1993” alternately energizes and enervates.
Begin on the fifth floor, where a televised, day-by-day timeline provides a Trivial Pursuit–style compendium of the year’s events. Wired magazine debuts, as do Beavis and Butthead and the European Union; a baboon liver is transplanted into a human being; and the year’s Whitney Biennial is characterized by class, race, gender, copious wall texts, and the controversial “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting To Be White” admissions button. Via multiple screens, reacquaint yourself with old friends: Bill and Hil have moved into the White House, Joey Buttafuoco is doing time for the statutory rape of Amy Fisher, the Unabomber is mailing sinister packages, and an ever-more-bleached Michael Jackson is denying rumors of child molestation.
Less engaging are Lina Bertucci’s bland photos of numerous art-world characters, many of whom (Charles Ray, Rudolf Stingel, John Currin) remain on the scene today. One floor below, Zoe Leonard explores sexual politics with her unnervingly lovely photos of such oddities as a splayed-open anatomical dummy. The AIDS crisis was entering its second decade, and the wax model represented, Leonard stated, “an object of horror and desire at the same time.”
Other works on the fourth floor exude an elegiac grandeur. Robert Gober’s Prison Window looms inaccessibly high on one wall, while a string of naked lightbulbs, by Félix González-Torres (1957–96), who worked for many years after contracting AIDS, cascades from the ceiling. The lights cast a welcoming glow as they spread across Rudolf Stingel’s plush orange carpet, which covers the entire floor. This pair of works implies impermanence—bulbs burn out, carpets get dirty and worn—but also offers comfort and hominess, the moods coalescing into numinous harmony.
The human body gets a vigorous workout on every floor. Charles Ray’s lovingly detailed realist sculpture Family Romance features the nuclear unit nude, anatomically correct, and holding hands—the adults scaled down and the two youngsters blown up to four and a half feet tall each. This Freudian free-for-all asks questions you really don’t want answered. In the single-take, three-minute video Head, Cheryl Donegan slurps milky liquid gushing from a punctured green bottle to a cock-rock soundtrack, the overflow splattering her blue tank top as she spits the rest onto a pink wall, sending up salacious MTV gyrations and gooey porn tropes in one humorously feminist swoop.
There’s little on view for painting buffs. Jutta Koether’s layered figures and diagrams congeal into garish sludge; Kathe Burkhart’s Turd, from “The Liz Taylor Series (Taming of the Shrew),” parodies nothing but itself; and John Currin’s wan images of women in beds deliver none of his later work’s prurient jolt. Across the room, however, Andres Serrano’s morgue photos astonish by traversing the ineffable border between animate flesh and lifeless carcass—a pair of hands are crossed in Renaissance modesty, a desiccated foot lies atop a wrinkled body bag with Baroque solemnity. Like centuries-old paintings, these five-foot-wide color photos become visitations from an epoch when death was closer to hearth and home.
Now, step out of the Wayback Machine and jack into uMedulla™, the Google-engineered ganglia that will have been implanted in our heads sometime around 2093. We’ll still be moved by Janine Antoni’s exquisite self-portrait busts, fabricated from soap and chocolate, which she slowly deformed by lathering and licking. We’ll still marvel at David Hammons’s blithely brilliant sculptures, such as the empty hoodie, jutting from the wall, held open by wires—a ghostly evocation of heartbreak that resonates with the Trayvon Martin murder case today.
And we’ll remain bored by Sean Landers’s acres of hand-scrawled musings about the art world and his own tenuous place within it.
Welcome to New York.