Pauline Hanson dominates the political airwaves. Same-sex partnership laws are a hot issue, as is the treatment of Indigenous Australians. Twin Peaks, Baywatch and – for some reason – Full House are on our screens.

2017 sounds a lot like the 1990s. It’s perfect timing, then, for Every Brilliant Eye, the NGV’s new show (named for a 1990 album by Died Pretty), which takes a critical look at Australian art of that decade. We seem more than ready to mine that era for nostalgia, but has it really been long enough to look back on the art of the ’90s with any objectivity?

“I didn’t think so to start with,” says co-curator Jane Devery. “But when I started looking at the work I could see how much time has passed.”

Devery and her colleague Pip Wallis raided the NGV archives for work, and borrowed what they didn’t have. The resulting show is, necessarily, all over the place. In the ’90s, culture fragmented into an ever-increasing number of subcultures. Australians produced fascinating art in response, and here, across half a dozen rooms, the noisy chatter of a decade’s cultural discussion leaves the impression of a tumultuous time. But it’s no less fascinating for its broad scope.

There were things Wallis and Devery knew they had to include. Ricky Swallow’s work, for instance, including felt sculpture (Untitled) 2 x Multistylus program edition, which resembles a topographical landscape, or Kathy Temin’s Duck-rabbit problem, an absurd, fluffy and paradoxical model of either a duck or a rabbit, depending on how you look at it.

Big names such as Bill Henson and Patricia Piccinini are here too, and politically charged works also demanded inclusion. At the time, identity politics and queer theory was huge. Australia grappled with its dark history as Gordon Bennett and Juan Davila addressed Indigenous relations and colonialism in the wake of Mabo.

But alongside the big-ticket names and landmark works, some of the most compelling stuff in Every Brilliant Eye is about re-presenting and, in some cases, reconstructing forgotten and ephemeral works: exciting, of-the-moment pieces, which were often shown in small, artist-run galleries. Punchline (1999), for example, was a public performance by Melbourne collective DAMP that wouldn’t have had a place in the NGV at the time. With a premise of staging the worst possible exhibition on opening night, DAMP gleefully made its unwitting audience uncomfortable by staging a fake argument, which descended into a fake brawl. It was all caught on videotape and is playing on a screen here. It’s still edgy and uncomfortable to watch.

Right next to that piece is Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe’s Player Guitar (1999). The audience is invited to interact with the work – a double-neck electric guitar. There’s a video of the work’s original run playing, in which various anonymous punters try their hand at the instrument. A lot of them don’t seem to have played before. But that’s the point.

“Those pieces are about finding freedom in not knowing,” says Wallis. Not knowing how to play guitar, and not knowing what the hell is going on in the room around you – both can be oddly liberating.

Any look at the ’90s would be incomplete without the pop-cultural imagery that defined it, and digital technology brought a whole new visual language to life in the 1990s. The internet and “cyberspace” were revolutionary, mysterious pools of seemingly endless, untapped potential. The examples on show haven’t been chosen for nostalgic value. The works feel fresh and vital, despite being built around now-obsolete technology.

Cyberpunk’s evolution from literary genre to fashion trend brought with it an eye-aching mix of purple and bright green, symbolising imagined cyberspace. In the exhibition this is represented by a printed fabric by fashion house Abyss Studio.

Patricia Piccinini’s digital prints Psychotourism and Psychogeography (both 1996) transport her uncanny, genetically engineered creatures to a digitally rendered landscape, making the most of the strange spaces that limited technology could offer, just as Stephen Honeger's video work Margin Walker (1999), recalls late-’90s video games with its glitchy, pixelated rendering of nature.

A 1992 billboard by collective VNS Matrix presents the group’s “cyber-feminist” manifesto: “We believe in jouissance madness holiness and poetry. The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.”

Wallis is particularly moved by this one. “They were working with computers at times when people didn’t really have them in the home,” she says. “Technology was going to provide us with a way out of the patriarchy. For me this embodies the utopian vision of the internet.”

So is there any single take-home message? Is there any dominating theme, or through-line? Well, no. It was a raucous, weird time, full of disparate voices and ideas, from grunge to rave, from politics to computers. In 20 years, maybe we’ll look back on today with the same bewildered fascination.

Every Brilliant Eye: Australian Art of the 1990s is at NGV Ian Potter Centre until October 1.

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