Don’t Look Back: The 1990s at the Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the work MOCA acquired during that decade. Most of the pieces explore the political and social climate of the ’90s — LGBTQ rights, the AIDS crisis, the internet, Rodney King, the end of the Cold War. In the opening explanation, MOCA Chief Curator Helen Molesworth frames the show around the acquisition of the pieces: the process of deducing what will retain cultural significance for generations to come. However, “Don’t Look Back” as a title starkly contrasts Molesworth’s institutional concerns. A nod to D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary by the same name, this title explores the maddening balance between artistic practice and public pressures of fame, commercial interest and the future.
“The Art World Can Suck My Proverbial Dick” and the space around it exemplifies this theme in gendered issues of art and the market wonderfully. The painting itself is a tongue-and-cheek, cartoon-style Sue Williams work that laments her exclusion from more serious circles of art-making. However, it is placed squarely opposite a massive Barbara Kruger piece, adding depth and nuance to both works. Kruger, a highly acclaimed female artist, seems to prove Williams’ critique invalid with not only her success, but the depth of her commentary as well. However, Kruger also comes from a design background, making her work highly commercial. While these two works vie for attention, the other two walls house a Llyn Foulkes painting and a John Baldessari diptych — two works that engage with pithy topics without the burden of a gendered reading.
“Import/Export Funk Office” as well was elegantly assembled by conceptual artist Renée Green. The space is clinical and intimidating from the outside, but thoroughly engaging within — full of books (everything from Frantz Fanon to Norman Mailer), movies playing, framed slang definitions and “funk stations.” There are four of these stations, each with its own set of headphones, iPod and library full of artists like Queen Latifah, Ice Cube and Public Enemy. However, the funk stations are marked “DATA” and the slang terms “LEXICON,” labeling these cultural phenomena as objects of scientific study. Though the work
is thoroughly entertaining, it maintains a deliberate distance, limiting the viewer to consumption rather than identification and prompting one to think more deeply about their relation to popular black culture.
“You Are Allowed to Touch Things,” on the other hand implicates the viewer in the content rather than alienating them. Living in a nook tucked in a back corner of the gallery, Jack Pierson’s movie marquee message is aggressively contradicted by the docents. The interactive sentiment only applies to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres piece, a pile of silver wrapped hazelnut chocolates that viewers are encouraged to not only touch, but also consume. Of course, the Torres piece and the two other homoerotic works escorting the viewer into the room evoke the AIDS crisis given the time period. Torres’ piece deals directly with AIDS, as his candy piles are meant to evoke the withering away of the human form afflicted with the disease. In this way, the otherwise exciting process of touching things in art galleries becomes tinged with anxiety and guilt, as the viewer symbolically ingests an individual afflicted with AIDS. The initial desire to interact, consume, and “touch things” brought on by Pierson and Torres’ work becomes stifled by the lingering fear of death and disease.
The whimsy and horror of Pierson and Torres’ pieces carries over into “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth,” though in a much more hopeful way. This imitation domestic space just off the enormous main gallery is packed with dinosaur toys, images and patterns. It depicts a childlike fascination with the whimsy of the past — a theme that informs perfectly the Sarah Sze piece immediately to its right. Her installation, modeled after the idea of exponential technological growth, fills two dim rooms with whirring fans, fake plants and blinking lights exploding from a single looping extension cord. Her work applied the artist Mark Dion’s same hopeful whimsy to the future, though in an oddly dated way due to the objects used. Together, the two works set up a sense of wonderment at our position in the present, informed by a curated idea of the past and a goofy vision of the future. There is a reason MOCA chose the image of Mark Dion’s childhood bedroom installation to represent the whole show — not because the work is the best, but because it is the most evocative of the theme of seeing the past from a future present.