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Issue 220

An Alternative Art History of the 1990s

Isabel Waidner imagines a different version of the decade that gave us the yBas (and frieze magazine)

BY Isabel Waidner in Features , Thematic Essays | 21 JUN 21

January 1991: in an unventilated, lino-floored classroom on the lower-ground floor of a school in southern Germany, blackout curtains drawn, my classmates and I, aged 17, are watching Operation Desert Storm live on a bulky but comparatively small-screen television. The coalition forces, led by the US and including the UK, subject Iraq to one of the most intensive air bombardments in military history. Our teacher cries at his desk.

John Major, the least charismatic British Prime Minister in living memory, travels to the oil-rich region, pep-talking troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and meeting the Kuwaiti government in exile. He is said to be the kind of person who tucks his shirt into his underpants, keeping his rig warm in the air-conditioned hotel rooms in the Gulf. Standing on top of a tank in the Saudi desert, arms propped on his hips, leaning forward, he talks into a mic, addressing the hundreds of British soldiers gathered around him – a showing of brown, khaki and sand-coloured desert camouflage including bucket hats. Major does not tell those soldiers that, in a letter written a few months earlier on 19 August 1990, Alan Clark, then defence procurement minister, declared Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait an ‘unparalleled opportunity’ to sell arms in the region. Neither does he mention the government’s scramble to ensure Britain’s arms manufacturers could fulfil the anticipated rise in orders for military hardware in the run-up to the war. The secret memos testifying to this will not be declassified and released until 2017, so I imagine Major sticks to platitudes.

John Major MP speaks to British troops, 1991. Courtesy: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

In the airless classroom, our pens have the capacity to catapult tiny missiles from the back row all the way to the front. No one is firing. On television, a British Challenger 1 battle tank achieves what will later be confirmed as the longest-range tank-on-tank kill shot of the war, destroying an Iraqi vehicle with an armour-piercing, fin-stabilized discarding sabot – or long dart penetrator – fired over four-and-a-half kilometres.

May 1991: in London, the pilot issue of frieze is published. It features a Damien Hirst butterfly on the cover. In a 2009 interview with the Guardian, Matthew Slotover – who co-founded frieze with Tom Gidley and Amanda Sharp – says he first became interested in contemporary art in 1990, after visiting Hirst’s ‘Modern Medicine’ exhibition at a disused factory in south London, which featured work by the young British artists (yBas). (Issue 1 includes yBa profiles, but also a feature on Adrian Piper by David A. Bailey and an interview with the artist-curators of ‘Windfall ’91’ in Glasgow.)

From where I’m sitting in provincial Germany, I can see the initial attraction of the yBas. I love the popularization of art and – particularly in the absence of public-sector support – have no problem with working-class artists cashing in. Hirst has the kind of irreverence and maverick energy needed to achieve the improbable that we, the structurally disadvantaged, depend on and, inevitably, fetishize.

In hindsight, the yBas – with the exception of Chris Ofili – were probably a disaster for British art because of the extent to which they dominated the 1990s discourse. The worst of it was XXL-sized white people art and pure posturing; the best of it was low-budget, raw video work. But even the yBa works that didn’t cost a fortune to make cost a fortune to buy, and quickly fell out of favour with anyone with an anti-capitalist conscience. Arguably, the yBas contributed to the marginalization of a generation of 1980s Black British artists – like John Akomfrah, Sonia Boyce, Chila Kumari Burman, Lubaina Himid, Isaac Julien, Keith Piper and Ingrid Pollard – whose work centred politics and race (then ‘identity’), or the art that developed in relation to the AIDS crisis. Perhaps the artistic project exemplified by exhibitions such as ‘Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology’ – curated by Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta at Impressions Gallery in York in 1990 – was not only foreclosed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s introduction, in 1988, of the Section 28 law prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, but by the emergent apolitical yBa zeitgeist, too.

Damien Hirst, Freeze exhibition catalogue cover, 1988. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

One of the most iconic images of the Gulf War was taken on 9 March 1991 in northern Kuwait by David Longstreath. It depicts a destroyed Iraqi tank with its insides hanging out like a prime minister’s shirt tail. An upholstered green seat with a high backrest lies on the roof, savaged. The tank is set against a pitch-black sky, several oil wells burning in the background. After a five-week bombardment of Iraqi command and control targets from air and sea, coalition forces initiated a ground assault, driving Iraq out of Kuwait and reaching a ceasefire within 100 hours. Retreating Iraqi forces set fire to Kuwait’s oilfields, resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters in human history.

When I arrive in London in 1995 – after two years spent in Frankfurt am Main, a city ravaged by HIV/AIDS – the yBa phenomenon no longer feels like a few wily art undergraduates winning. Instead, it feels as though the driving force of art, like war, is Tory money. The yBas have been enabled by Tory cash from the beginning and, at this point, it has become impossible to extricate the artists from their main sponsor: the art collector Charles Saatchi.

An Iraqi-British heir and businessman, Saatchi is the co-founder (with brother Maurice) of Saatchi & Saatchi, Thatcher’s favourite advertising agency, responsible for the 1978 campaign ‘Labour Isn’t Working’, built around the iconic and regularly remobilized poster depicting an endless queue to the ‘unemployment office’. The campaign is credited with facilitating the first of four consecutive election wins for the Conservative Party in 1979 and with helping Thatcher into power. In the run-up to the 1997 election, M&C Saatchi – the agency set up by the brothers after being ousted from their original company by shareholders – again creates the campaign for the Conservative Party. The key poster shows a picture of the Labour Party candidate, Tony Blair, with a strip ‘torn off’ across his face onto which is superimposed a pair of cartoony red demon eyes; underneath is the slogan ‘New Labour, New Danger’. While the campaign is unsuccessful – Labour wins the election by a landslide – the poster will prove somewhat prophetic.

LABOUR STILL ISN’T WORKING, Conservative Party poster for 1979 General Election, 2017. Courtesy: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

At the time, I live in an east London flatshare in a barely converted warehouse directly opposite Whitechapel Gallery. Only one of the four rooms lets in daylight, which inspired the architect to connect all of the rooms via large, internal windows. Without privacy, I write but I’m not yet a writer. My Atari (for Cubase, the music-sequencing software) is not connected to the internet, not even dial-up. I work double shifts in a cafe in Soho. It has a landline. I also have a pager. I’m 23, Hirst’s exact age when he organized ‘Freeze’ a decade earlier, and I have already seen a generation of gay men and trans women die in Frankfurt. I have already had my unfair share of homophobic and transphobic abuse, and I have yet to encounter even the concept of personal safety. I do not yet comprehend the intricacies of Britain’s class politics nor its national brand of xenophobia. 

Asked to imagine a radical queer and trans cultural history of 1990s London, I’d say it existed – at the margins – through the work of artists like Franko B, The Divine David, Women of Colour Index and Ajamu. Lola Flash and Del LaGrace Volcano photographed 1990s queers who never subscribed to the gender binary in the first place. In 1988, Roz Kaveney wrote a trans novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull, which, despite interest from several publishers at the time, as well as endorsements from Kathy Acker and Neil Gaiman, did not see the light of day until a quarter of a century later, when Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Team Angelica issued it in 2015. It went on to win a Lambda Literary Award a year later.

We, the unknown and institutionally unaffiliated group of new arrivals, consistently produce work in 1997. We take hundreds of photos, staged and unstaged, on disposable cameras. One Polish boy – a sex worker – makes a DIY short film about his experience sharing a crowded flat on London’s Charing Cross Road with several female sex workers. My French flatmate (non-binary, to apply the term retrospectively) participates in unpaid art project after unpaid art project as a model, often playing dead. We cut up and customize our second-hand sportswear and promiscuously play in bands. Several friends work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts – behind the bar.

For our culture to expand into a movement though, it would take a whole different set of conditions. What if, for speculation’s sake, we – the young non-British artists of the 1990s – are allowed two supernatural props, to level the playing field? First to arrive: a wholesale order of Blair ‘demon-eyes’ sweatbands from the occult warehouse in the East End of the national astral plane. We wear them low, like Ninja masks. It’s not that we need the anonymity – we’re invisible as it is – but the masks enable us to see into the future.

D:REAM, Things Can Only Get Better, 1993. Courtesy: Magnet Records

We already know that, even under a Labour government, Britannia will never be cool. We also know that Major – unmemorable prime minister from a lower-middle-class background, who grew up on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, south London, and left school with only three O-levels and no university degree – used the end of the Cold War, in 1991, to justify cuts to the UK defence budget. Thanks to the demon-eyes magical prop and the foresight it affords us, we come to know that, during his premiership, Oxford-educated Blair will order British troops into combat more often than any other prime minister in British history. We learn that, in 2006, Blair will answer ‘yes’ when asked on the television show Parkinson if he sought divine intervention on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Blair will admit that God did not actually state that the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was worth the deaths of legions of Iraqi people, but he’ll say that God gave him the strength to invade the country despite the overwhelming unpopularity and lack of legitimacy of his decision.

We, the disenfranchized but magically reinforced artists of the 1990s, are shaken. We have got to do something – anything! – to avert the ‘New Labour, New Danger’ demon-eyes prophecy. We re-direct whatever attention we may or may not have been paying to the physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living to the physical improbability of local armed forces surviving major combat operations in another war in Iraq. We put our Ataris – and our overlooked talents – to work. Eventually, after running Cubase for 26 days and nights straight, we invent a sound that cancels out not just D:Ream (whose 1993 hit, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was adopted as Labour’s 1997 campaign song) but the warmongering voice of Blair’s god.

I can confirm that the future, in 1997, does not sound – as it’s often claimed – like the white US minimal disco cellist Arthur Russell. Instead, it sounds like live broadcasts of Desert Storm on foreign televisions, like upholstered seats on burnt-out tanks, like a generation lost to AIDS, like whatever compels queer and trans children worldwide to leave their countries of origin and migrate to Great Britain. It sounds like a 1990s culture that, rather than glorify the union jack or wear it as a dress, holds its militant governments to account.

Sun newspaper, ‘It must be you’ headline for the election of Tony Blair, 1997. Courtesy: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

The second supernatural boon at our disposal is a powerful, deep-space transmitter accelerator approximating the reach of the internet c.2021. We deploy it immediately. Consequently, Blair wants to, but cannot, receive the holy transmission encouraging him to invade Iraq; it is neutralized by the hip sound that we, the young non-British artists, are broadcasting across the nation and beyond. This, and the absence of flak, are our sounds of the 1990s.

I’m sorry to end on a low but, in 2021, in reality, Labour still isn’t working. Hirst is the UK’s richest living artist, with an estimated fortune of GB£280 million. In February this year, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a GB£16.5 billion surge in defence spending – the largest real-term increase in the defence budget since Thatcher’s premiership. And, while we’re seeing higher levels of exposure for some trans artists and writers, the conservative pushback has been real. (Think of the open letter, in March, from Wild Woman Writing Club, attacking US writer Torrey Peters’s nomination for the GB£30k Women’s Prize for Fiction.) Simultaneously – perhaps paradoxically – marginalization is still ongoing. I’m not overly optimistic we’ll be seeing art by Evan Ifekoya, for example, on the cover of a broadsheet this year and we’ll be waiting a while for Shola von Reinhold, Huw Lemmey or any of my future novels to appear on the Booker Prize longlist – though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

I take comfort in the fact that, in 1997, members of the Labour Party founded an amateur football team called Demon Eyes FC, named after the M&C Saatchi campaign. In the absence of a major queer and trans movement, let that be the art of the 1990s.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 220 with the headline ‘Whose 1990s?'.

Main image: Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, installation view, ‘Young British Artists I’, Saatchi Gallery, 1992. Courtesy: © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Isabel Waidner is a writer and critical theorist. Their novel Sterling Karat Gold (2021) won the Goldsmiths Prize, and their latest book, Corey Fah Does Social Mobility, was published in July by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House.