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90s sister Sophie Lee in Patricia Piccinini’s Psychogeography 1996, printed 1998. from the Psycho series 1996. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Optus Communications Pty Limited, Member, 1998 (1998.252) © Patricia Piccinini

Friday essay: the 90s – why you had to be there

Van Gogh shot himself in a wheat field. Kurt Cobain in a greenhouse. Van Gogh took two days to die. Cobain’s shot was more effective. On a chilly, wintry morning in Melbourne, there are far more people lining up at the NGV for the Van Gogh exhibition than there ever will be for an exhibition on the 1990s. This is only fitting. A world travelling exhibition – Van Gogh and the Seasons vs the press call for Every Brilliant Eye: Australian Art of the 1990s. Outside, the line for Van Gogh snakes in a well ordered fashion onto the causeway. In the other gallery up the road, there’s only me and one other guy. Perfect. I wouldn’t expect anything less because it’s not possible for it to be less. A reality a 90s kid like me has learnt to deal with.

Kurt Cobain and daughter Frances Bean in 1993. Shutterstock

Some movements travel in ubiquitous ways. Others explode like fireworks in a black sky and then creep into the rest of your life influencing far more than they’re ever acknowledged for. And here I am caught in the moment. The Impressionists vs the DIYs. The Starry Starry Nights vs the Gangland freefall. A generational condition author Mark Davis described in 1997 as a “virtual gerrymander” of the ideas market. The 1990s alternative cultural movement creeps through my brain. In many ways it has defined me. My sensibility (resilient); the way I operate (untethered); my morality (questionable). The 1990s is the forgotten decade of the 20th century. The Lost Decade, as it is fittingly referred to by burnt out Japanese economists. But perhaps the resurgences are becoming more frequent.

Every Brilliant Eye is certainly contributing to a wave of recognition of this decade. Since 2015, nearly every major global media outlet has run an article declaring a revival of 1990s pop culture, articles less centred on ideas than the easy symbolic markers of drugs and fashion – ecstasy is back, flannos are back – the headline of “They Might be Dad’s Now” an exemplar of completely missing the point.

Nevertheless, this move from NGV curator Pip Wallace is timely. Before I left my hotel on Swanston Street to visit the show, Double J announced it was dedicating the whole week to 90s music. Online, someone who clearly lives in the suburbs now too described Courtney Love, as “totally committed but easily distracted. Fiercely intelligent and painfully self-aware”. Middle finger down my throat. Is this the best musical decade of all time? Next question.

The first thing I want to do once I’m inside Every Brilliant Eye is make something. Mash something up. Scratch something out in a piece of plastic, stitch my name in an old dress, slap a slogan down just to undo it. There are good reasons for this. The exhibition appears to be loosely split into a series of rooms. The first is about being rowdy and unpopular, the political stuff people wanna say but usually don’t: grunge, happenings, the collision between art and performance and music.

Author provided

The second space is quieter and more about feel; abstract emotions, textures, tactility, and the last – a supersonic blast of room, the gay nightclub of my dreams, an in-your-face contemplation of the beauty and danger of who and how and why we might like to fuck. In all three stages, there’s work from some big names – the moody, muted photography of Bill Henson, Patricia Piccinini’s surreal brainscapes featuring twisted 90s sister Sophie Lee, the intricate botanical plumbing of Fiona Hall and Scott Redford’s unco babes chopping up surfboards. Names synonymous with contemporary Australian art, all producing rich and varied work in the 1990s, even if they were not really young Gen Xers but their big brothers and sisters.

Mix tapes, Bic pens and zines

The first room comes at me like someone’s upended all the drawers in an inner city share-house and maybe transported it in go karts or the dirty boots of Escorts to whatever collective happening space was scraping together the ability keep to its doors open. No one much cared about all this detritus in the 1990s but now it’s on plinths.

Vinyl and limited edition zines encased in glass and worshipped like the lovely, fragile artefacts they are. A single mix tape marked “For Starlie” conjuring late night drives through suburban streets where the faint flicker of Neighbours glowed on every telly and we glided past with the lover of that week, listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain or Died Pretty on loop.

Even the titles of the artworks and the written language appearing sometimes within them appeals to the twentysomething girl in me, reading like psalms I’ve forgotten how to say. “Love and Death Are the Same Thing” reminding me of how our days in the 1990s were heavily punctuated with poetry and song lyrics – guys in bands quoting Rimbaud while pulling cones, friends scrawling out their minds and hearts in public diaries, one of my poems printed on the inside cover of a CD.

Brian Pounders/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It’s as if I’ve been thrust back into the language of a time by a team of demented phenomenologists armed with Bic pens and ink jet printers, VHS players and tape recorders – innocuous phrases that could be refrains from David Lynch movies or Nick Cave and Bad Seeds album covers, notes left to me on the fridge by my flatmates, the kind of statements that only make sense when I’m staring at the ceiling or a dripping tap for a really long time and am really, really out of it. “The Artists Fairy Floss Sold on the Merry Go Round of Life” and “Someone Looks at Something”.

Model for a Sunken Monument is a highlight. Ricky Swallow’s brilliant, giant melting pot of a head, Darth Vader looking like he’s made out of Lego and rising out of (or disappearing into) the floor – depending on your equilibrium or perspective. Swallow is one the youngest artists in the exhibition and his preoccupations with pop culture reflect that difference. Nearly every other artist featured here was born in the 1950s or 1960s.

Ricky Swallow, Model for a sunken monument 1999. synthetic polymer paint on composition board. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Joan Clemenger Endowment, Governor, 1999 © Ricky Swallow, courtesy Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Most weren’t in their twenties in the 1990s but edging towards or making a living out of being established. In liner notes written elsewhere about Swallow’s work (he’s also made art out of BMX bikes and playful nods to ET), there’s a kind of reluctant nod to his ability – but of course, they say, here Darth Vader is empty, hollowed out. A defeated vessel. Not really. If you graduated high school in 1990 you know Darth Vader is never vacuous. It’s the same kind of misconception levelled at another featured artist Kathy Temin, who visual arts commentator Jeff Gibson once described as “the worst nightmare” of conservative critics because her preferred sculptural medium was soft fur.

Kathy Temin at the show. Tom D. Watson

Kathy credits her break and her ability to keep showing work in her formative years in Melbourne in large part to curator and gallery owner Rose Lang and the now infamous Gertrude Contemporary arts space. And it’s the work on loan from this gallery that really gets me.

Two pieces shot on dodgy hand held video. Punchline by the so-called DAMP collection of artists and Player Guitar by A Constructed World - both staged for the first time in 1999, as if in a desperate effort to ward off Prince’s prophecy about the end of the world.

In the Punchline video, a series of interventions occur in a gallery when a meltdown between two lovers gets out of hand and the punters are not sure what the real story is. This is pre-9/11 art, where everyone gets into it and no one goes default anti-terrorist. Player Guitar gives the exhibition some much needed audio muse – people live are invited to play the double barrel electric guitar while watching the people who did it last time. Yeah. Everyone’s in a band. Everyone’s made it.

A Constructed World, Jaqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe, Player guitar, 1999, 2017. electric guitar, amplifiers, sensor, chair, video camera, colour video, sound, duration variable Collection of the artists, Paris Tom D. Watson

The Gertrude Contemporary scene as featured here is emblematic of underground movements of a kind everywhere from Tokyo to Seattle to New York. The interesting thing about the 90s is that the DIY aesthetic mashed up against developing technologies. The advent of the internet meant such movements were as much about pressure cooker of geographical isolation in the first half of the decade until they absolutely weren’t in the last.

In the 90s, you didn’t necessarily have to survive on the trickle down effects, the half-hearted drip feed, of bigger more powerful arts and cultural machines in major cities. People got into making shit and playing in bands and writing poetry on pokies in small towns and spaces off the beaten track, in small pockets all over the world. Hire a video camera that weighs a ton – send it to a party instead of yourself. Check. Crash a rich friend’s party and steal an amplifier. Check. Start a multi-arts centre above a fish and chip shop on the Gold Coast. Check.

Adam Cullen Australian 1965-2012, Everything is low impact 1999. enamel paint and fibre-tipped pen on canvas 152.1 x 213.4 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Joan Clemenger Endowment, Governor, 1999 (DC1-1999)

The 1990s alternative artistic ethos was infectious because you didn’t need an address or rich parents to fund your warehouse space or your magazine. All you needed was will and creativity and attitude and maybe a good survival instinct. Because, of course, many of these individual forays and collective ventures were ill fated but even when they did die, as some people and places sadly did, they’d contributed in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. That arts centre that smelled like overcooked calamari came and went but some of the names you now know walked through the door there, just like they did at Gertrude.

Even if, when I visited the latter place this week, they were preparing to move out to the sticks (well Preston South). Apparently not even a good combination of nostalgia and relevance can save you from sky rocketing real estate values and a street in Fitzroy reeking of bespoke custom made furniture and high end, high shine homewares. In an article for Art News on the enduring influence of the 1990s on contemporary art, Linda Yablonksy says,

In fact, the Nineties took place on what now seems an intriguing distant planet, when the art world didn’t cater to money in the same way that it does today.

Striped Ts and Drugstore Cowboy hair

A week before I found myself in the bird’s nest of the NGV, I’d schlepped up the Pacific Highway to a 1990s reunion in Brisbane’s West End - the first time I’d hung with many of the people I’d spent the formative part of that decade with in over 20 years.

The artwork in Every Brilliant Eye reminded me of the scratchy non-digi photos we posted on the Facebook event page to mark the reunion. We look comfortable clumped on roadsides, backs up against the walls of buildings, sprawled on lounge room floors or other people’s beds. We’re obviously waiting for things. Daybreak, trains. The future. The delivery of mates or sticks. Burnt toast. Unhurried. Half bored and poor.

We wanted to be in Wim Wenders’ movies without realising we were Wim Wenders movies, everyone impossibly beautiful only because we were impossibly young. Drugstore Cowboy hair. Striped T’s and unlaced Docs. The kids in Elephant even though it hadn’t been made yet. Grunge back then was retro and futuristic because it didn’t know it was – grunge was retro with a ripped edge, the future, in a tripper’s eye. The 1990s – the stuff that had already happened or was about to happen – with holes in it.

And I guess that’s the beautiful charm and familiarity of this exhibition. Everything feels like you did it, like you might have seen it before, and you drift around with your mouth open, grateful, like a big blue whale everyone’s forgotten about in a sea of lovely plankton. Yes, I think my friend Karen made fur balls and crazy mobiles out of Spotlight knocks offs and pill packets too. Yes, it seems someone has made an artwork out of my friend Peta’s tights. And if you don’t recognise all of this where the hell were you?

Every Brilliant Eye is at NGV Australia until October 1.

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