MASSIMILIANO GIONI: The globetrotting curator explains why 1993 is the key to now
Taken from the August issue of Dazed & Confused:
Massimiliano Gioni is one of the most exciting curators in the world. As associate director of the New Museum in New York, he recently put together NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, a time-capsule show looking at art, politics and pop culture in that pivotal year. Following the recession of the late 80s/early 90s, by 1993 there was an urgent, political impulse in the air. “The social and economic landscape of the early 90s was a cultural turning point both nationally and globally,” the show argued. “Conflict in Europe, attempts at peace in the Middle East, the AIDs crisis and national debates on healthcare, gun control and gay rights formed both the background and source material for a number of younger artists who first came to prominence in 1993.” Here Gioni gives us 15 reasons why 1993 still matters.
“I felt it was time to do the first museum show and survey about the 90s, and instead of making it too general I thought, ‘Why not concentrate on one specific year and one specific place?’ To reconstruct the 90s from a unique vantage point. We looked at ’93 vertically, a bit like an archaeologist or geologist. Drilling down and doing a kind of core sample, reconstructing a particular year.
We chose ’93 for a few reasons. It was 20 years ago. It was a very interesting turning point in recent history. It was the inauguration of Bill Clinton in New York. It was filled with recession here in the States and in England and it seemed to have symmetry with today. Particularly in the art world, it was the birth of a completely different idea of globalisation and internationalism.
Birth of a dialogue
It was also when a new dialogue between art and fashion and image society was born. Even the relationship with Dazed & Confused and many other magazines that emerged at that time was quite significant in shifting the way fashion, art and photography shape our memory and perception of that time and ourselves. That had a huge effect on the way people present and stage themselves.
The exhibition wasn’t saying that New York was the centre of the world. On the contrary, it was about a moment when a whole different idea of ‘centres’ emerged. It was also the year of an important Venice Biennale and a very important Whitney Biennial, and we felt those two exhibitions could serve as case studies from which to learn more about that moment in history.
A new England
In London, it was the beginning of – I hate the expression – the YBA thing. It was very transformative for London. A ‘new’ England emerged that reverberated very much in New York. Many younger British artists were showing for the first time in New York, like Sarah Lucas and Gillian Wearing.
’93 was very much a turning point for an underground culture that went mainstream. As a kid, I grew up interested in underground music and alternative music. In the 90s, we witnessed many of our heroes – Nirvana most obviously – become stars. That was a very strange phenomenon, which I think was unprecedented. The whole idea of what was underground and what was edgy changed completely. Damien Hirst is the classic example of somebody who goes from being alternative to being a kind of rock star and that transition defines that moment.
Fairytale of New York
It’s also the story of New York City, going from the late 80s and early 90s into Giuliani New York. Maybe it’s also the story of London. Gentrification, but also different ideas of city life. If you think of the 90s in London, there’s also the rave scene and the reinvention of the city through music. The London we know now is very similar to New York. It’s cleaner. It’s more corporate. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but there’s been a transition.
Fashion goes mainstream
The fashion industry changed a lot around that time. I think Wolfgang Tillmans is the most exemplary artist, because he takes street culture and alternative culture, and somehow through his work you can witness the transition from that culture to a more assimilated fashion culture. I don’t want to idealise it, but a crucial shift happened around that time of completely different associations between the alternative and the mainstream.
On many levels, NYC 1993 was a slightly autobiographical show. I was 19 and it was a very formative year for me because I saw my first Venice Biennale. The defining moment of this new idea of a cosmopolitan art world was expressed there – it was the first with lots of Chinese artists, with artists from the former USSR, with Thai artists. It was really a geographical explosion. “1993 was a turning point for an underground culture that went mainstream. The whole idea of what was underground and edgy changed completely”
’93 was very much about a belief that, let’s say, minorities can have an impact and a voice in the narrative of history. It was the beginning of a different presentation of African-American culture. It’s also the moment that turned into political correctness in its most depressing examples – the idea that even language needs to be reinvented and reformed.
It was a moment of multiculturalism and identity politics in American arts, a shift in politics and the way people describe and stage themselves. The way brainstorm HIV-awareness activism became relevant within the art community and culture is very important because it gave voices to people who, up to that point, didn’t have a voice. Saying, ‘We exist and this is our history.’
Tearing down the monolith
It was a moment in which the idea of a monolithic history was completely set aside. In America, it had more to do with race and minorities, but in Europe it had to do with the tragedy of former Yugoslavia. The Berlin wall went in ’89 and then we had the war in Yugoslavia, which shows that this idea of a monolithical history doesn’t exist – it’s more a matter of different voices, which literally fight themselves to death. Perhaps it was so traumatic that people don’t want to remember it.
In 1993 Oliviero Toscani was in the Venice Biennale, and I often think that the idea of globalisation is by the United Colors of Benetton. This myth of universal brotherhood completely clashed with what we saw happening in Yugoslavia and have seen throughout the years since. Now we have an idea of globalisation that is much less naïve, more polyphonic – and that’s very exciting.
Kill art stars
I think younger artists are reacting against that artist/star paradigm. Paradoxically, by doing that, they’re rediscovering some of the activism, modesty and immediacy of the work of the early 90s. The early 90s was an art that came out of recession, that often had very limited production values. The art of somebody like Félix González-Torres is now worth millions and millions of dollars but is made of nothing. That was something we wanted to stress with our exhibition. I was thinking that it could be interesting for a young artist to see that art can be done with literally nothing.
War is peace
Chelsea Clinton has come to the New Museum a few times, but it was the first time Bill had, and it was quite amazing because he’s mentioned so many times in the show. One of the defining images is Bill Clinton and Ariel Sharon signing the peace treaty for Israel and Palestine. To think that, 20 years later, that war is still being fought is incredibly depressing. The fact that Clinton came is interesting, as it means that the show itself has entered into a cultural sphere that is beyond just art. It’s an interesting way to close the circle.”Text by Francesca Gavin