Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Mounting an exhibition of the work of the late Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96) represents a serious challenge. How can one shed light on a relatively small body of work that has been so widely exhibited, reproduced, and collected? Curator Lisa Corrin did it by taking into consideration one of the artist’s main concerns: how meaning shifts and travels through different contexts. Eschewing a chronological approach, she offered stimulating juxtapositions of works, enlightening even viewers who might have felt all too familiar with the artist’s candy spills, paper stacks, jigsaw puzzles, lightbulb strings, mirrors, beaded curtains, photographs, and billboards.

One fine juxtaposition was the pairing of Untitled (Natural History), 1990, and Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), 1991. The first piece comprises a series of twelve photographs of bas-relief inscriptions in stone, part of a monument to Theodore Roosevelt, of almighty categories such as AUTHOR, STATESMAN, SCHOLAR, PATRIOT, EXPLORER, SOLDIER. The second is a large pale blue box with a string of lightbulbs; it served as a platform for a go-go dancer who performed on it for five minutes a day while listening to a Walkman and dressed in a silver-lamé bathing suit and sneakers. Both works rely on metonymy to represent absent figures. Untitled (Natural History) poses a critique of the statue (which here is represented through its absence) and its pre-modernist heavy, monumental, and masculine qualities. Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), on the other hand, borrows the same stalwart, ponderous, and solid characteristics from high modernism (in the guise of Minimalism). Art spectatorship and sexual scopophilia converge here, yet it is the dancer who holds the power to decide when his or her display as a sex-object-turned-art-object will take place.

Other juxtapositions were just as carefully constructed, emphasizing the works’ underlying themes and motifs. Lightbulb pieces, the sound of a Viennese waltz in a Walkman, and photos of details of crystal chandeliers put excess and minimalism, pleasure and restraint, into play. Placing an image of the flower-strewn grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas near two stacks that read “Somewhere better than this place” and “Nowhere better than this place” evokes questions of monumentality and memory, life and afterlife.

Gonzalez-Torres’s work calls attention to the economy of the art object and of the exhibition space. The viewer’s participation has been closely associated with his work—we are invited to take pieces of paper from his stacks and candies from his spills; collectors and curators may at times determine aspects of the installation and even composition of some works—size, length, weight, among others. And to display the work properly, the Serpentine show had to go beyond the walls of the classical gallery space at Hyde Park, not only installing billboards on the streets and in the Underground, but exhibiting other pieces at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Camden Arts Centre, the Royal College of Art, and the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. The importance of Gonzalez-Torres’s work lies not only in its treatment of the issues of context that are so crucial to the production and exhibition of contemporary art. It’s also in the way his work brings together seemingly irreconcilable questions pertaining to sex and death, power and politics, poetry and beauty, formal aesthetics and art history, language and meaning. It is probably for this reason that the work has gained praise from such diverse groups in the art world: from members of the October group to queer critics, from art students adverse to high theory to those infatuated with it. Gonzalez-Torres’s work has had the power to unite disparate factions in a sort of fin de siecle art consensus.

Adriano Pedrosa