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untitled 2 (Physician Desk Ref.), 1993, Gin, Louie

Guest writer, Andrew Durbin on the New Museum's NYC 1993 exhibition and the importance of context.

No Time Like Then: NYC 1993 and AIDS
by Andrew Durbin

On the occasion of the New Museum’s NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, which ended this spring, the New Museum added a canoe of Cup Noodles to its entry.

A little faded in its utilitarian grandeur but nevertheless essential currency in the college dorm economy, Nissin’s Cup Noodles was once a ubiquitous symbol of living cheap and Times Square, where a sixty-foot, steaming billboard of the product was posted from 1996-2006. For most of its early history, the dehydrated noodle product was called Cup O’ Noodles, but in 1993—on its twentieth anniversary as a product sold in the United States—Nissin changed the name to Cup Noodles. The recipe didn’t change after the “O’” was dropped, but in removing the shortened preposition Nissin reaffirmed its ramen’s postwar simplicity with a slight grammatical confusion that nevertheless rang faintly with “the contemporary.”

This simplification speaks to the New Museum’s effort to articulate a cogent view of the art of 1993, which often had to elide or subtract artists, works, and agendas in order to reflect the world of its year of choice. While the show at the New Museum was “not a definitive history of the art in the 1990s, nor [was] it one that privilege[d] a single group of artists united under a single thematic or conceptual banner,” it did cover a substantial amount of material, from AIDS to the post-Warhol art world’s cash influx and other “issues such as racial and gender politics, globalism, and institutional critique,” all of which the museum circumscribed in a single year marked by the beginning of the “Republican Revolution,” wars in the Middle East, the World Trade Center Bombing, the healthcare debate, the fights over access to HIV/AIDS medication, and so on.

It was also the year of the legendary 1993 Whitney Biennial—a particular flashpoint that the New Museum show is at pains to acknowledge without replicating (though how much better—and more provocative—would have been a replicated Biennial, piece by piece?). Writing for the New York Times, Roberta Smith described the ’93 Biennial:

With its persistent references to race, class, gender, sexuality, the AIDS crisis, imperialism and poverty, the work on view touches on many of the most pressing problems facing the country at the dawn of the Clinton Administration and tries to show how artists are grappling with them. The wall labels and texts are rife with fashionable buzzwords: identity, difference, otherness. Anita Hill, the Persian Gulf war and the violence that followed the Rodney G. King verdict flash before the eye, usually on video. In fact, the exhibition makes a video artist of George Holliday, the man who was using his camcorder for the first time and happened to videotape the Los Angeles police beating Mr. King, spontaneously creating a document, if not an artwork, that once more brought the issue of racism to every American living room.

Both shows were ultimately about anger and mourning—at the body politic and the body itself, the hugely unjust structural problems that followed and continue to follow the Reagan and Bush Administrations, poverty, racism, sexism, Reaganomics. For me, the most striking works (and those that occupied the most vexed place) in the New Museum’s show were those that dealt directly with AIDS and their deeply powerful contemplation of a seemingly supernatural death.

Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993) is exemplary of this meditative dimension of the show, even though its presentation as an installation rather than a screening revised the film’s durational experience into an odd sample. Jarman’s seventy-six minute filmconsists only of a blue screen with a soundtrack by Brian Eno and a text narrated by Jarman, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and John Quentin. The film explores oblivion, countering the cultural cliché of a heavenly white light (already vexed in this context by AIDS’ compromise of ‘white’ blood cells) with a cool, dark blue, which, in a proper screening, takes on a heady density perhaps best described by the film itself as a “submarine garden.” Somewhere in that garden, the speaker we never see says goodbye to us:

kiss me

on the lips

on the eyes

our names will be forgotten

in time

no one will remember our work

our life will pass like the traces of a cloud

and be scattered like

mist that is chased by the

rays of the sun

for our time is the passing of a shadow

and our lives will run like

sparks through the stubble

I place a delphinium, blue, upon your grave

There is no one to kiss (or be seen kissing)—and this loss of representation relegates death to an event of language and metaphor that is always restrained by its own intense struggle to read the illegible, express the inexpressible. Jarman doesn’t describe the brutality or release of death; he describes its effacing power over those who under go it. In its terminal minimalism, inspired by the work of Yves Klein, the film finds a solitary, mournful expression of loss of oneself in the process of losing others. The New Museum didn’t screen the film as it was meant to be; instead it reduced it to a stop on a tourist’s itinerary. And this drive to reduce everything to a sample is a larger problem with the entire show.

What was lost—elided—in the show’s time restraint was much of the important AIDS-related work that lead to this moment in NYC art, like that of David Wojnarowicz, Paul Thek, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Keith Haring, to name a few. These huge ghosts animated the room, and their work would have been helpful in terms of framing the show’s best-known work, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ sculptures. And this didn’t just apply to queer art: Art Club 2000 and Jeff Clark would have been better integrated into the show if we could have seen their work paired with that of those whose work shares an interest in punk and underground sensibilities of the provisional and ephemeral.

1993 was a strange moment for HIV/AIDS and the arts. By 1993, the disease had claimed many of its most famous victims. Shortly thereafter, gay activist groups like ACT-UP successfully rallied major pharmaceutical companies to more aggressively test treatment options and by 1995 these companies had developed a more complex, but effective regimen of medication that could effectively prolong an HIV patient’s life. In the popular mind, AIDS migrated to the “third-world” and the initial fear, mystery, and stigmatization of its victims diminished—though they never disappeared. Of course the core issues—better access to healthcare, rent stabilization for people with HIV/AIDS, and patient rights—remain crucial to the LGBT community, even though so much of the political focus has pivoted toward marriage rights.

The New Museum show supposes, despite its effort to restore the work to its political and historical context, a year can be abstracted from its continuum of related years. It fails largely because it excludes many of the artists who had died before then but whose work and lives deeply impacted the artists of ‘93.

A more compelling version of this timeline, and one that acknowledged the flexibility of its frame of reference, was Helen Molesworth’s recent This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s at the ICA in Boston. This Will Have Been succeeded because it adopted the opposite approach of the New Museum, arguing against the segmentation of years, of decades, of timelines. It held that these histories are necessarily omnidirectional, connected to years, cities, movements, and moments, yes, but by no means fixed to them. It argued that the timeline itself represents a conservative perspective, parceling out life into units that measure election cycles, which in the case of NYC 1993 ultimately means realizing the Reaganite project of silencing many of the most significant voices of AIDS.

This is the obvious point but it’s exactly the one NYC 1993 fails to make, and in failing to do so the show cleaved the work from the context that made it so meaningful. The tremendous loss, the stakes of what counted in U.S. healthcare and foreign policy, and the opposition to the rampant, corrosive ideology of conservatism (which, of course, continues today) were not only clear in the contexts its contemporaneity provided, they were the essential mark of the moment. At the New Museum, the world we lost once was lost again. I don’t know where or if it can be found, but I don’t think we’ll find it swirling in the dehydrated Styrofoam cup of cheap noodles served from a canoe in the lobby of the New Museum.

Andrew Durbin co-edits Wonder, an open-source publishing and events platform for poetry and new media art. He is the author of Reveler (Argos Books 2012) and The Standard (Insert Blanc Press 2014). He curates the Queer Division reading series at the Bureau of General Services--Queer Division on the Lower East Side, and lives in New York.