PRINT February 2010



WHEN ARTFORUM first approached Danh Vo about his pending reinstallation of Elena Filipovic’s comprehensive survey “Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Specific Objects Without Specific Form” at Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels,† the Vietnamese-born, Berlin-based artist was decidedly reticent to discuss it, feeling that any full exposition of his own ideas would run counter to the project’s spirit. Indeed, he feared the very meaning of his gestures would be irrevocably altered by their public articulation and contextualization; and this, of course, is the very dilemma posed by Gonzalez-Torres’s work and its display. As Vo points out in conversation, the late artist’s pieces often take, and require audiences to take, more circuitous paths, their significance becoming evident only as one moves around them, encountering anew the objects—and often the individuals—that have occupied their different spheres. And herein lies a paradoxical task: If a retrospective is supposed to have a clarifying effect when it comes to an artist’s oeuvre and its qualities, how then should one present work whose meaning always stands at a remove or resides in an opacity that also connotes potential? At Wiels, Vo will put Gonzalez-Torres’s work on view so that it offers many partial reveals and gives (unannounced) access to areas of the institution that are usually off-limits—yielding knowledge of work even while withholding certain of its aspects, allowing for the possibility of alternative routes, both actual and interpretive. Vo will, in other words, illustrate by example and perhaps even provide additional examples by analogy, much as he has done in the passages offered here. —Tim Griffin
†“Felix Gonzalez-Torres: Specific Objects Without Specific Form,” organized by Elena Filipovic, opened at Wiels Contemporary Art Center, Brussels, on January 16. The retrospective will be reinstalled by a different artist at each of three venues: by Danh Vo at Wiels (March 5–April 24); by Carol Bove at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (May 21–August 29); and by Tino Sehgal at the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (January 28–April 25, 2011).

PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY is the site for an ongoing battle among dead stars using their life dramas, fighting to attract the attention of myriad pilgrims from around the world. The overdose of Jim Morrison; the trial of Oscar Wilde; the execution of the Communards; the accidental strangulation of Isadora Duncan, whose scarf got caught by the wind and the wheels of her cabriolet while she was escaping with her young lover. This was definitely not a place I wanted to miss during my stay in Paris.

I bought a map by the cemetery entrance, wanting an overview of the grounds in order to chart my path. This proved completely unnecessary, however, since the routes were already well defined by visitors. One just needed to follow their streams.

There is a reason this cemetery has gained its reputation, beyond its exceptional cluster of renowned personalities—the rituals prompted by the graves. I passed by the resting place of Victor Noir, a realistic life-size bronze sculpture portraying him lying dead on the ground, and found it is indeed true that the distinct bulge of his crotch is polished and shiny from the year-round tradition of women (men?) rubbing it in hopes of enhancing their love life or fertility.

I didn’t hear birds singing the melodies of Frédéric Chopin by his heartless crypt, but it’s true that the dick of the angel on Oscar Wilde’s tombstone has gone missing. Rumor has it that the piece was last seen being used as a paperweight by the cemetery’s caretaker. But all this is now covered by time and the lipstick kisses that have accrued on the huge rock marking his grave.

Seeking out the next point marked on my map, one block from where I was standing, would lead me off the cemetery’s beaten track, to the silent burial place of Gertrude Stein. Standing alone before it, I was disappointed not to find any colorful flowers, the likes of which had been imprinted on my mind by a photograph taken on this very spot by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Instead, I encountered a modest grave covered with a bed of ashen stones sharing the same valeur as the tombstone itself. One could read there, engraved in golden letters:


I had previously been told that Stein’s lover and life partner, Alice B. Toklas, who died twenty-one years after the author and saloniste, decided to be buried in the very same grave. It might have been the extravaganza of the others I’d seen that left me feeling so blasé. I was ready to head to the next spectacle, the wall that the Communards were executed against. For no reason I can think of, I walked around the grave of Stein and Toklas, as a kind of good-bye. It was therefore entirely by coincidence that I discovered the missing name of Alice B. Toklas. There it was, engraved on the flip side of the tombstone, in the
same style as the words on the front:


I felt very lucky to have been given this treasure through such pure serendipity, but at the same time, I felt cheated, because it was so easily missed. Doesn’t everybody deserve such a gift? I blamed Gonzalez-Torres for serving audiences with a decoy image of flowers on this grave, since it is clear that the tombstone is the real point of departure and interest for his photograph. I thought I knew and understood him after so many years of stalking his works. But then I always forget that they often have detonators embedded within them, with each piece intending to question a previous production— working against Gonzalez-Torres himself or working with contradictions. Revisiting “Untitled”(Alice B. Toklas’ and Gertrude Stein’s Grave, Paris), 1992, made me think once more of Gonzalez-Torres’s oft-quoted observation “Things happen within culture when it’s needed.”