The 90s Alive at the Blanton

Written by Julián Muñoz Villarreal.

The 1990s is an awkward decade for college-aged students. We get invited to a 90s themed party and immediately begin Googling everything about the decade in order to find something to wear. Suddenly you start questioning if you were actually born anywhere near the decade in question.

Bill Clinton played the saxophone? Aren’t chopsticks in your hair a bit culturally insensitive? Why is there a swimming naked baby on the album cover? Tribal tattoos? Dad jeans everywhere. In the end, we probably just settled with a jazzercise jumpsuit from the 80s, which is fair to say, we don’t get the 1990s. The Blanton knows that. The Blanton is here for you.

“The pieces are focused on the confluences of identity politics, globalization, and the emergence of the digital age.”

Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, up until May 15th, is the Blanton Museum’s retrospective of art from the transformative years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to 9/11. The exhibit is the first major museum survey of American art of the 1990s. In homage to its namesake, the Nirvana song of the same name, the pieces are focused on the confluences of identity politics, globalization, and the emergence of the digital age. These issues still resonate deeply in contemporary society and greatly inform the lives of current UT students.

Born between 1993 and 1997, the majority of UT students on campus  were born right in the middle of the decade. Yet because we were so young, our memories of the decade mostly revolve around the Rugrats, Ring Pops, and Mulan saving China. Even so, we are obsessed the 1990s; Full House is being remade and Cher Horowitz gifs on Tumblr are everything. Which is why the Come as You Are exhibit is especially relevant to the UT student body. In turning back to the 1990s, current barely-twenty-something students have to retroactively view the decade of our childhood with the nuances our lived experiences.

Some of the pieces in Come as You Are force millennial students to look back on the experiences of that informed our childhood and present but did not necessarily experience directly. Félix González-Torres’ “Untitled” (Placebo), 1991, is an installation piece of hundreds of individually wrapped candies that are supposed to be taken away by viewers, slowly diminishing over time, referencing how the body diminishes physically due to the debilitating effects of AIDS. While the AIDS epidemic began in the preceding decades, the awareness of the crisis came to a peak in the 1990s. This awareness would affect public perception, general fear, and ridicule that linger today, especially in the Queer community

There are other pieces that look directly into our collective childhoods. The collective JODI’s Untitled-Game (A-X, Q-L, Arena, Ctrl-Space), 1998-2002, is an interactive piece that is controlled through a video game controller. As you stare at the screen, the image oscillates and changes speed in ways that are reminiscent of being hypnotized by television and the advent of video games. Glenn Kaino’s The Siege Perilous, 2002, is a typical Aeron rolling office chair that spins around. Initially, the fantasy of every bored five year old, until it accelerates faster and faster, becoming every five year old’s nightmare. My friend even became physically excited about Jason Rhoades’ Red, 1993, because it included a childhood candy called Hose Nose.

In reaching into the recent past, Come as You Are shows how the issues and ideals of the decade are still reverberating in our contemporary lives.

Some of the works in the exhibit were novel for their time, but are familiar in the present. Alex Bag’s Untitled Fall ‘95, 1995, is an hour long video instillation of the artists masquerading as different characters who narrate the mundanity of their “lives” to the camera. In 2016 this form is almost ubiquitous across YouTube in the “vlog” formats. Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale, 2001, is a piece of evocative internet art where the artist post an auction on EBay for their blackness. Blackness for Sale is reminiscent of Yaya M.’s 2014 crowdfunding campaign called “I need some white privilege,” which emerged as a commentary of the Black Lives Matter movement. Both directly confronted the racial prejudices of the time with digital technology and the internet. In reaching into the recent past, Come as You Are shows how the issues and ideals of the decade are still reverberating in our contemporary lives.

Come as You Are reveals the subtleties of influences that molded our perceptions of the world around us. The result of the exhibit for millennial students at The University of Texas is multifaceted; together, the exhibit engages our collective childhoods of the 1990s and present in ways that are both familiar and disorienting.

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