One small piece of candy in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ art

Photo by Stefanie Hessler
 

Most people would probably subscribe to my view when I say that I like candy. Its consumption is usually pleasurable, barely evoking second thoughts and if so, only about the health of my teeth and the new bikini I bought last week. It is again the context that is such a powerful matter it can totally change our perception and attitude towards things. After visiting the Felix Gonzalez-Torres exhibition “Specific Objects without Specific Form” at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, a tiny piece of candy suddenly gains a bitter-sweet aftertaste. It is alongside the smallest entity in the exhibition that the artist’s huge political agenda becomes most evident.

 

Gonzalez-Torres, who was born in Cuba in 1957 and moved to New York in 1979, where he also died in 1996, is known as forming part of the process art movement and post-minimalism. These genre might easily evoke associations for anyone occupying him- or herself with contemporary art. It is all the more amazing that the complex ideas of conceptual art in Gonzalez-Torres’ work are as easily understood by any exhibition visitor open to engage with them. The concept behind his well-known candy piles is as brilliant as it is simple. As for “Untitled (Lover Boys)” (1991), visitors are allowed and encouraged to take away goodies from the piles that constitute various of his works. Gonzalez-Torres always named them “Untitled”, but as in the case of “Untitled (Lover Boys)”, it feels as if he couldn’t help but specify them anyway. However, by parenthesising the subtitle, it seems as if the artist did not want to impose the creator’s thoughts and intentions onto the spectator. Rather and in a much more cautious way, he gives away information that opens a door and allows us to connect to the very personal stories behind his works. It is thereby that the spectator can establish an individual relation with the work and with Gonzalez-Torres’ life. When we come to know the story behind “Untitled (Lover Boys)”, the meaning of the pile of candy, each coloured bright blue with a white spiral, changes entirely. The amount of sweets heaped together equals the body weights of the artist and his partner Ross Laycock. Knowing that both died from AIDS-related causes renders the work even stronger and more intimate. A visitor who takes away a piece of candy and eats it does not only contribute to the eventual disappearance of the work, but also takes part in it in an extremely direct and bodily way. The act of ingesting a part of the work reminds of the Christian sacrament of incorporating Christ’s body by the host at the Eucharist. Originating in a time when AIDS spread and was seen as something guilt-ridden and untouchable, a stigma associated with homosexuality, ingesting an allegorical part of Gonzalez-Torres’ and Laycock’s bodies constitutes a powerful and touching symbol.

Felix
 Gonzalez‐Torres
, “Untitled
 (Lover 
Boys)”, 
1991, Glenstone. Installation view MMK. Photo: Axel Schneider, 2011. The 
Felix
 Gonzalez‐Torres
 Foundation,
 Courtesy
 of 
Andrea 
Rosen 
Gallery, 
New 
York.
 

Gonzalez-Torres made the work just after his partner’s death and in an interview said about it: “There was no other consideration involved except that I wanted to make art work that could disappear, that never existed, and it was a metaphor for when Ross was dying. So it was a metaphor that I would abandon this work before this work abandoned me. [...] I didn’t want it to last, because then it couldn’t hurt me.”1 And so the antithesis between sweetness and death becomes all the more tantalising. However, as we contribute to the disappearance of the work by taking one small piece of candy with us, we think about death and while the metaphorical bodies change and disperse in entropy, the number of people keeping them in mind grows proportionally.

 

It has become clear that the small piece of candy we’re talking about does not have much to do with cheerfulness and innocence. However, sweets usually don’t make one think immediately of politics either. It is with the subtlety specific to his work that Gonzalez-Torres’ political motivation shows in its clearest consequence. Whereas he was convinced that all art is political, he thought that this is even more the case if it is not outspokenly so. In his work, an entity as small as a piece of hard sugar can become a symbol for his very personally affected political agenda. Each candy on the pile is as much only candy as it is entirely soaked with autobiographical facts, oscillating between joyful moments, loss and pain. Maybe this is the reason why we can so closely relate to Gonzalez-Torres’ work, who saw the true potential of being political in the artistic act rather than in words.

 

The same way he was very critical of political art, so was he of the public art tendency of the 1980s. Whereas public art was largely understood as art that was placed in outside settings, Gonzalez-Torres understood its essence as gravely different. Public art in his sense meant to build communities, as it occurs when people who are complete strangers to one another all take away a piece of candy from a pile. Building a temporary community in this process, we all contribute to the disappearance of the work and so Gonzalez-Torres’ loss becomes our mutual loss. At the same time as it makes us think of death, it reminds us of the constant rebuilding mechanisms of life: The artist added a twist to his works, which will continuously diminish, but are also constantly replenished by the museum according to the dimensions specified by the artist. Ownership in this case becomes a responsibility rather than a privilege, whereas every visitors can easily own a part of the work, undermining the do-not touch rules of the museum. And so the piece of candy ultimately is a very generous gift: the offer to take part in someone’s life, to participate and share, with all the joy and pain this involves.


Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled (For Stockholm)”, Detail, 1992. Magasin 3 Stockholm Kontshall, Stockholm, Sweden and ”Untitled (Loverboy)”, 1989 Private Collection and on the upper image ”Untitled (Fear)”, 1992 Alice and Marvin Kosmin. Installation view MMK. Photo: Axel Schneider, 2011.
 

For the second half of the exhibition curated by Elena Filipovic, the artist Tino Sehgal developed a concept that changes the exhibition continuously. Himself very much influenced by Gonzalez-Torres, the artist who works in a very immaterial manner developed a choreography for the exhibition that constantly modifies it. As the piece of candy I take home with me is moved, the artworks change locations, sometimes aren’t on display at all and thus refer to the infinite ephemeral character of Gonzalez-Torres’ work. As life is never static, the concept frames analogies to endless becoming, decay and recovery. Chewing my candy on the way home, I think that Sehgal’s activation of the exhibition must have been rather in Gonzalez-Torres’ sense.

 

- Stefanie Hessler

 

1 Felix Gonzalez-Torres in an interview with Robert Storr: “Felix Gonzelez-Torres: Être un Espion” in ArtPress January 1995, Pages: 24 -32

 

 

 

 

 

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