Maastricht

View of “Specters of the Nineties,” 2011.

View of “Specters of the Nineties,” 2011.

“Specters of the Nineties”

View of “Specters of the Nineties,” 2011.

In the wake of the recent dramatic decline of Dutch government support for the arts and contemporary art in particular, which culminated in the announcement in June 2011 of draconian cutbacks, some commentators in the Netherlands pointed out the alacrity with which artists and other art professionals have previously met political demands to prove their social and economic relevance. According to such critics, artists have made themselves vulnerable by succumbing, since the early 1990s, to the prevailing logic that art could either be a constructive trouble-shooter for social problems or become part of the “creative industries.” This is the language of a politics that had collapsed in the face of tenacious right-wing populism and intensified neoliberalism. In an essay published in conjunction with “Specters of the Nineties,” the artist and writer Hans-Christian Dany describes the problem in terms of “service-art” and the “artistic politics-substitutes” that are only able to deliver “decorative critique.” But this exhibition, focusing on works made between 1989 and 2000, and organized by Lisette Smits, associate curator at Marres, in collaboration with French artist Mathieu Laurette, provided a subtler take on the social and critical art practices of that period.

With some thirty participating artists and collectives from around the world, the exhibition was dense both in its installation and its narrative. Ben Kinmont, whose “social sculptures” revolve around the participation of friends and passersby, overtly plays with notions of communication and service. His actions Waffles for an opening, 1991, and I will wash your dirty dishes, 1994, were presented documentary-style, in glass cases that display used objects, invitation cards, contracts, and correspondence (stating, for example, “You serve me. I serve you”). Direct social engagement can be found in Superflex’s early work Supergas, 1996–97, a transportable biogas plant that was designed in collaboration with African and European engineers. A different sort of social practice is found in the staged events of Renée Kool, who gathered fifteen young fathers with their babies at a gallery opening (The Opening, Alias Fathers & Babies, 1991). A slide projection documenting the gathering was placed next to Job Koelewijn’s iconic Cleaning of the Rietveld Pavilion, 1992, also a staged event, but one that seemed closer to works by Andrea Fraser, Barbara Visser, Laurie Parsons, and Marylène Negro, all of which question the mores of the exhibition space. More provocative in this respect was Quite Normal Luxury, 1999–2000, by Plamen Dejanov and Swetlana Heger, who brought a huge and hideous BMW ad into the gallery space in accordance with an agreement with the car manufacturer that got them a new car.

These and other pieces expose the social and economic mechanisms in which artists are embedded in remarkably open and communicative ways. While they are clearly representative of some important tendencies of the 1990s, other developments remained out of sight—post-colonial critique or computer-based art, for instance, not to mention the spectacularization that was particularly noticeable in Britain. Nor did the “documentary turn” get any significant attention. The curators’ narrow focus raises the question of how specific this self-conscious, socially sensitive art is to the decade under consideration. Many of the strategies exposed in the show surely evolved earlier. Perhaps the specters of the 1990s are, in fact, the specters of the 1960s.

Saskia van der Kroef