Borrowing its title from a 1990 album by the Australian band Died Pretty, Every Brilliant Eye: Australian Art of the 1990s explores a decade in contemporary art and culture. Following the Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2013, which examined Australian art of the 1980s, Every Brilliant Eye articulates key ideas and tendencies that defined pre-millennium artistic production in this country. By arranging works drawn from the NGV’s permanent collection into loose groupings that share common conceptual, ideological or material concerns, the exhibition brings iconic holdings into dialogue with lesser-known ones that, in many cases, have been rarely exhibited. These works are augmented by key loans and a range of ephemera – including magazines, records and select performance documentation – to reference the wider subcultural contexts of the 1990s, characterised by smaller galleries, artist-run spaces and other artist networks that operated independently from larger institutions.
The 1990s were marked by enormous social, economic and political upheaval. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the decade witnessed epoch-defining events, including the Gulf War, AIDS crisis, establishment of the World Wide Web, a major economic recession and the landmark High Court Mabo native title ruling. These conditions formed the backdrop to a range of critical debates related to postcolonialism and multiculturalism, cultural identity, race and gender politics, environmental and ecological concerns, the growing impact of technology on the human body, and Australian provincialism that underscored much artistic production.
Globalisation was a defining feature of the decade, distinguished by the unprecedented interconnectedness of economic, social and cultural relations. International trade flourished as national economies opened up; Australia, which had floated its dollar in 1983, was experiencing a period of economic liberalisation and financial deregulation, and participating more actively in the international market. In parallel, the nation began to adopt a more outward-looking disposition and reconsidering its position in the region. Under the influence of Prime Minister Paul Keating, there was a reorientation away from the traditional art centres of Europe and North America towards Asia. This was reflected culturally in the inauguration of the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, held at the Queensland Art Gallery in 1993. Simultaneously, the international art world was taking great interest in Aboriginal art, particularly Western Desert Painting, and Indigenous Australian art became significant in the international art market. Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls were the first Aboriginal artists to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1990, and in 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of the landmark 1967 referendum on the place of Aboriginal people in Australia’s Constitution, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Judy Watson and Yvonne Koolmatrie represented Australia at the same exhibition.
Rapid proliferation of new technologies, including the internet, email, blogs and mobile phones, saw artists adopting these developments in their works. Video became a more prevalent medium, and internet-based art – ‘net art’ – and the CD-ROM emerged as new mediums. Jill Scott’s work Paradise Tossed, 1992, was an interactive installation which charted the way the changing technology of household design had impacted women’s lives. Other artists, such as Patricia Piccinini, explored advances made in genetic engineering during the 1990s that allowed the human body to be modified and its relationship to technology reconceived.
This new bond with technology not only evoked trepidation but also utopian possibilities. Theorists such as Sadie Plant and Donna Haraway articulated the feminist potential of the cyborg age, and exerted a significant influence on the emerging community of artists who sought emancipation through technology. Artists such as the VNS Matrix collective (Virginia Barratt, Francesca da Rimini, Julianne Pierce and Josephine Starrs) were committed to redefining the role and image of women in art and technology and to dissolving sexuality and gender divisions. Using technology at a time when few people had access to a computer, their A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1992, subversively questioned control over women’s agency, challenging the masculine gender bias in tech communities.
In Australia, this new global situation engendered a cultural shift that saw increasing numbers of artists examine questions of identity, hybridity and multiculturalism. The influence of post-structural cultural theory gave rise to queer theory which sought to remove static categorisations of bodies and identities. The works of Leigh Bowery, David McDiarmid, Douglas McManus and Peter Tully cross categories of high and low art, craft, fashion, pop culture and activism, and in some cases were worn as costumes to gay pride marches or in queer nightclubs at a time when homosexual sex was still a crime (Western Australia and Tasmania did not repeal such laws until the 1990s). The urgency to make the impact of the AIDS crisis on the queer community visible, in the face of government inaction, saw artists create work straddling creative and activist practices. In McDiarmid’s Body language, 1990, for example, the names of the artist’s friends and lovers who had died of AIDS–related illnesses are inscribed on the figure’s holographic body.
Many artists exploring social and political narratives turned a critical eye towards official accounts of representation, identity and history, thereby extending and complicating 1980s strategies of appropriation. Juan Davila, Leah King-Smith, Gordon Bennett and Kate Beynon reclaimed tropes of racial categorisation, drawing attention to the framework of representation that has impacted Aboriginal and migrant communities in Australia. Similarly, in her museological installations that positioned the artist as curator, Narelle Jubelin reflected on visual culture’s process of enshrining particular histories.
In Australia and elsewhere across the globe, the recession in the early years of the 1990s had a direct impact on the art world. As numerous commercial galleries closed and sections of the art market collapsed, artist collectives and artist-run spaces assumed a greater role. New, independent networks of artists formed, creating a thriving alternative scene. The emergence of numerous artist-run spaces led to a dynamic period of artist-led programming, curating and self-publishing.1 The 1990s saw the emergence of numerous artist-run spaces and initiatives. For further reading on key Melbourne artist-run spaces during this time see Sandra Bridie (ed.), Artists/Artist-run Spaces: Interviews with Artists from Six Melbourne Artists’ Spaces. Westspace, Grey Area, Platform, Stripp, Go Go, First Floor, Talk Artists Initiatives and Westspace, Melbourne, 1998; and Deborah Hennessey (ed.), Store 5 Is, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 2005. For example, in the earlier part of the decade in Melbourne, Store 5 was a particularly influential artist-run space, established and programmed by a group of like-minded artists with a shared interest in the revival of modernist tropes, including geometric abstraction and neo-Dada conceptual practices.
Originating in Seattle in the early 1990s, the term grunge was first used in reference to a trend in popular music and fashion. In Australia, one of its earliest uses in relation to art appeared in a 1993 essay by Jeff Gibson, titled ‘Avant-Grunge’, in Art & Text magazine. Gibson identified a particular group of artists, including Hany Armanious, Dale Frank, Adam Cullen and Mikala Dwyer, after they curated a string of exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne,2 In 1993 Armanious curated the exhibition Shirthead, at Mori Annexe in Sydney, in response to Rad Scunge, another influential exhibition associated with the Grunge movement curated by Dale Frank in Melbourne earlier that year. In 1993 the artist A. D. S. Donaldson curated Monsterfield at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney. and predicted their eventual acceptance, writing:
With its roots in street culture, Grunge art is ultimately subcultural form, an inner-city Arte Povera, and a new generation of urban Expressionism. Dropping out, acting up and buying in all at once, Grunge, in the context of art, is as much a celebration of disobedience as it is a registration in the archives of high culture … And so, just as museums of Europe must now be littered with Neo-Expressionist ‘monstrosities’, so too might there be in ten years’ time a little patch of Grunge, fouling up the air in the back lots of public collections across Australia.3 Jeff Gibson, ‘Avant-Grunge’, in Art & Text, no. 45, May 1993, p. 25.
An emphasis on relationships between artists and audiences was another key development of the period, seen in the relational, participatory and performance practices of certain artists and collectives, including A Constructed World (ACW) – the collaborative duo of Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe, established in Melbourne in 1993. Their first project, the magazine Artfan, contained exhibition reviews by people who claimed to know nothing about contemporary art, and sparked debate about who was able to interpret contemporary art, according to what criteria.
ACW’s emphasis on dissolving boundaries between art and everyday life influenced a generation of younger artists, including the Melbourne artist collective DAMP, established by a group of ex–Victorian College of the Arts students under the mentorship of Lowe in 1996. DAMP’s notorious work Punchline, staged at 200 Gertrude Street (now Gertude Contemporary) in 1999, was based on the idea of an artist’s ‘worst nightmare’ on opening night. The work comprised a series of incidents, such as the disturbance of speeches, a lovers quarrel and ‘accidental’ damage to works of art, that eventually escalated into a full-scale brawl. An installation and video footage that documents this iconic work has been recreated by current members of the collective especially for this exhibition.
Every Brilliant Eye is not a definitive overview of Australian art in the 1990s, but rather a reflection on that artistic period through the lens of the NGV Collection and with the distance of time. Today, younger artists in Australia have taken up some of the issues that defined the 1990s, including race, sexuality, gender politics, globalism and institutional critique art. The return of these debates to the core of much recent contemporary Australian art indicates that sociopolitical currents are ongoing and evolve over time.
Artists in the exhibition: A Constructed World, Abyss Studio, Howard Arkley, Hany Armanious, Robert Baines, Frank Bauer, Gordon Bennett, Kate Beynon, Annette Bezor, Leigh Bowery, Stephen Bram, Andrew Browne, Janet Burchill, Eugene Carchesio, Bronwyn Clark-Coolee, Susan Cohn, Lane Cormick, Adam Cullen, DAMP, Juan Davila, A. D. S. Donaldson, Mikala Dwyer, Anne Ferran, Sue Ford, Robert Foster, Dale Frank, Marco Fusinato, Rosalie Gascoigne, Diena Georgetti, Matthys Gerber, Jeff Gibson, Julia Gorman, Fiona Hall, Melinda Harper, Brent Harris, Kristin Headlam, Patsy Hely, Bill Henson, Stephen Honneger, Mathew Jones, Narelle Jubelin, LaLaHi Prism (Kym Maxwell), Leah King-Smith, Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Shelley Lasica, Pat Larter, James Lynch, David McDiarmid, Douglas McManus, Anne-Marie May, Tracey Moffatt, Klaus Moje, Vera Möller, Miyuki Nakahara, Jan Nelson, Trevor Nickolls, Rose Nolan, David Noonan, Susan Norrie, John Nixon, Jill Orr, Mike Parr, Stieg Persson, Patricia Piccinini, Rosslynd Piggott, Kerrie Poliness, Patrick Pound, Scott Redford, Luke Roberts, Sarah Robson, Julie Rrap, Jill Scott, Sally Smart, Ross T. Smith, Ricky Swallow, Kathy Temin, Rover Thomas, Blanche Tilden, Blair Trethowan, Peter Tully, Peter Tyndall, VNS Matrix (Virginia Barratt, Francesca da Rimini, Julianne Pierce and Josephine Starrs), Lyndal Walker, Judy Watson, Louise Weaver, Constanze Zikos, Rubik (Julia Gorman, James Lynch, Andrew McQualter, Ricky Swallow), SOLVER (John Nixon and Marco Fusinato), Gary Wilson.
The 1990s saw the emergence of numerous artist-run spaces and initiatives. For further reading on key Melbourne artist-run spaces during this time see Sandra Bridie (ed.), Artists/Artist-run Spaces: Interviews with Artists from Six Melbourne Artists’ Spaces. Westspace, Grey Area, Platform, Stripp, Go Go, First Floor, Talk Artists Initiatives and Westspace, Melbourne, 1998; and Deborah Hennessey (ed.), Store 5 Is, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, 2005
In 1993 Armanious curated the exhibition Shirthead, at Mori Annexe in Sydney, in response to Rad Scunge, another influential exhibition associated with the Grunge movement curated by Dale Frank in Melbourne earlier that year. In 1993 the artist A. D. S. Donaldson curated Monsterfield at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney.
Jeff Gibson, ‘Avant-Grunge’, in Art & Text, no. 45, May 1993, p. 25.