Review: Come As You Are – Art of the 90’s

The sign upon entering the exhibit warns the viewer of adult content; this is real. Come As You Are: Art of the 90’s is probably one of the strangest and most unsettling exhibits I have seen in the Blanton. I had the sense the student and volunteer staffers felt a little destabilized with the content and its sensory challenges. This was not pretty art that lay quietly on the wall, it was a collection of jarring pieces that did not all play nicely. Each piece was provocative in the overall sterile space, like an isolated scream or a fist thrown up in an environment that expected polite behavior. When I discussed the exhibit with another 90’s era friend, we joked about how tempted we were to pull pranks with some of the participatory pieces. We would probably be kicked out but it would have been in keeping with the spirit of that time.  It’s always a strange thing to navigate a space that historicizes a time you either know intimately or know was anti-establishment. I felt similarly at odds visiting Punk and Fluxus retrospectives in museums. One could not help but feel the work better suited to dingy warehouses filled with cigarette smoke and the noise of motorbikes.

Ultimately however, the work has the last laugh….poking out at the viewers, making them shift uncomfortably and glance away. There is an overwhelming drone of noise that fluctuates in the space, partly stemming from an adrenaline-triggering installation of a late 90’s Aeron chair, typical of those populating 90s start-ups. The chair in Glenn Kaino‘s piece the Siege Perilous (2002) revolves within a glass box, faster and faster, simulating the feeling of the intensifying dot com era, until it whirls madly, filling the air with the sound of a something out of control. I couldn’t help but wish it was juxtaposed with something signifying the crash.

The other loud drone comes from a video piece across the hall in a small viewing room. Doug Aitken‘s Monsoon (1995) is a sobering, eerie piece, from the artist visiting the site of the Jonestown 1978 mass suicide almost 20 years later. The camera follows the overgrown jungle, littered occasionally with abandoned vehicles like a deserted, tropical ghostown. The only sound is that of insects, birds and the slowly building noise of an impending monsoon. The piece develops so much tension and unanswered questions that you expect the rain to wash it all away, but the rain never comes.

While you’re listening to these insects and thunder you overhear the LA babble from one of Alex Bag’s characters in her proto-YouTube/proto-reality show video diary (Untitled, Fall ’95), perhaps the new art student who is struggling with identity, theory and expectation. Her valley girl tones pierce your experience of all the art as she battles with perception and articulation.  Are her characters ironic or truer than the audience wants to admit?

Alex Bag, video still from “Untitled Fall 95.” From “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s." Alex Bag (born 1969, USA) Untitled Fall 95, 1995 57 min, color, sound Courtesy of Team Gallery and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York Alex Bag
Alex Bag, video still from “Untitled Fall 95.” From “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s.”

Does the exhibit capture the 90’s? To this I have to say no, because there was so much more to that era and these are only snapshots from a selection of conceptual artists.  It’s difficult to build something immersive and cohesive out of time when we felt full of questions and rejected all the answers. Explaining to someone who was not there, or who was not in their youth at this time, it would be difficult to say that these pieces spoke for me, or even spoke to me. The show does call attention to most of the major issues of the time however, from the fallout after the AIDS crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a period after the 80’s when people wanted to pull down and critique all the walls and conventions.

If I were to curate the period I would  select different some different pieces. Mine would likely overlap with the 1980s as that was a time that the early 90’s was still trying to digest and rebel against. I would probably cover the period 1987 to 1994 and would highlight some pieces by Joel Peter Witkin bringing attention to the influence he had on 90’s industrial band Nine Inch Nails. I would have to incorporate performance pieces by Guillermo Gomez-Pena and films by Greg Araki and Jon Moritsugu.  I could weave music by Portishead with Sonic Youth and Janes Addiction. I would like to include dioramas featuring old Amiga computers, external 56k modems, bottles of Orbitz sodas and Jolt cola, Doc Marten boots, art by Taraoka Masami and Dave McKean, novels by Anne Rice and Kathy Acker, Mondo 2000 magazines and Fringeware zines.  The exhibit would span the beginning of the Indie/Alternative scene breaking through to the mainstream, to the beginning of the dot com era, because for many of us the latter signaled a domestication of these energies. The full story of this time has not yet emerged, but, Come as You Are is a great place to start that conversation.