Ah, the 1980s. With so much going on during this tumultuous decade—dangerously big hair, Rubik’s Cube mania, the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal, the Cabbage Patch Doll craze—who knew there were so many serious artists thinking serious things and making art to address the utter artlessness of the 1980s?
Yet there they are, over at the Walker Art Center, more than 100 of them, in This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s—a show that’ s not nearly as fun as the title implies. Though the decade itself was an incoherent mess, the show itself is divided into four handy sections: “Democracy,” “Gender Trouble,” “Desire and Longing,” and “The End is Near.”
Admittedly, democracy in the 1980s got off to a rough start with the election of Ronald Reagan as president. That was back when Republicans liked deficits, supported Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, sucked up to the Saudis, and sold plenty of military hardware to Iran: you know, all the stuff that came back to bite us in the ass in the 2000s.
Reagan was a showman, so it’s entirely appropriate that the most elaborate showpiece in this exhibit is a presidential portrait of Reagan, complete with velvet retaining rope and a red carpet. The work, by Hans Halke, has a curious title, though: “Homage to Marcel Broodthears”—Broodthears being a Belgian poet with a wicked sense of humor, and, some say, the father of the contemporary art installation. In the same room is a grid of TV sets—the medium over which Reagan had such mastery—and close by there is an (ironic) American flag.
That’s about it for the imagery you’re likely to recognize, however. This Will Have Been is one of those Walker exhibits that seems strangely disconnected from its stated subject matter. As an academic exercise, it’s an impressive collection of work steeped in the semiotics and politics of the time. But the curse of academic inquiry is that it is often boring, and it is boring because the conversation the curators and experts are having is several layers removed from the larger cultural conversation. Yes, the title explains what the parameters are going to be, but the show is still in competition with people’s collective memories of the 1980s, which were overwhelmingly influenced by pop-culture trends—Princess Di, mullets, MacGyver, etc.—and music—Prince, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a few hundred hair bands. (Note: Jim Walsh’s essay on what was going on in the local music scene is one of the better things to emerge from this show.)
Every decade has its cultural clichés, but ones from the 1980s are particularly trivial, so it’s easy to understand why a contemporary art museum would want to ignore them. I mean, are we really going to be talking about Huey Lewis and the News fifty years from now? Yet by not even referencing the decade’s most common cultural memes, it feels as if the artists themselves are/were out of touch, producing “art” in their own little intellectual bubble and to hell with the rest of the world. Seriously, if you lived through the 1980s, you know that the television shows NYPD Blue and “thirtysomething” had more cultural influence than all of the art in the world combined.
This indifference to shared experiences is of course the essence of post-modernism, which is the driving intellectual force behind most of the art in this show. The exception is art that deals with AIDS, which struck the artistic community much harder than the rest of society. The “Longing and Desire” section is devoted almost exclusively to the emergence of gay culture and the accompanying horror of AIDS. Nan Golden’s slideshow, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” shows all kinds of people—young, old, gay, straight, tranny, bi-racial—being attracted to all kinds of other people. People fall in love, Golden seems to be saying: get over it. The obligatory Robert Mapplethorpe photos are another touchstone of gay culture, sparking as they did the ridiculous “culture wars” of the early 1990s. And one of the more interesting videos is Isaac Julien’s 1989 film Looking for Langston, which romanticizes black gay life in 1920s Harlem.
Another theme that runs through the show is the ever-increasing power of corporations in American life, and the accompanying rise of “brand” consciousness. Ashley Bickerton’s “Tormented Self-Portrait” is a big black box with various corporate logos—Nike, Citibank, Marlboro, Tylenol—slapped all over it. Part of Richard Prince’s Marlboro-man series is on display, naturally, and there’s a wool blanket riddled with the logos of Woolrich and Playboy, which was of course created by women working in an Asian sweatshop who presumably weren’t wearing bunny suits. There’s a lot of reading, too—as in works with lots of words in them—so bring your glasses.
The final section, “The End is Near,” is small, but it’s also the most relevant, if only because the idea that the world is going to end is still very much part of the national conversation. If it doesn’t happen on Dec. 21 (the Mayan doomsday), some combination of global warming, nuclear annihilation, natural disaster, disease epidemic, cosmic realignment, or religious insanity is bound to wipe out mankind sooner or later. In the meantime, the artistic conversation about it will continue to be disconcertingly indirect. Consider Tony Tasset’s “Button Progression,” a series of three seat cushions fastened to the wall: one with a single button, one with four, and another with nine. It’s a brilliant display of functionless furniture, but as signs of the apocalypse go, it’s a bit tepid. Better is a photograph, by Gerhard Richter, of an upside-down, blurry-looking human skull. Kind of says it all.
The upshot: If you’re looking for some 1980s “fun,” you’re not going to find it at This Will Have Been. These artists are far too caught up in the social and political struggles of the decade, sacrificing their sense of humor for sincere, declarative statements of protest and disgust over the “morning in America” hangover. Some hair of the dog wouldn’t hurt, though. A little Bon Jovi, anyone?