PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 1-17
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Within and Beyond: Felix Gonzalez-Torres's "Crowd"
In one of his best-known works, Felix Gonzalez-Torres installed thirteen black-and-white photographs at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, each depicting a single, carved laudatory word from the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side. Devoid of people, the photographs' concern seemed resolutely formal: the spatial tension between the flatness of the pictures' surfaces and the actual curve of the semi-circular wall depicted, emphasized by the concurrence of the wall's cornice and the photographs' top edges. A week later, however, Gonzalez-Torres struck all but three photographs: "Soldier," "Humanitarian," and "Explorer." A celestial blue box, the upper perimeter of which was lined with light bulbs, was placed at the center of the room. Part minimalist box, part pop-art camp, this installation was enhanced by the gyrations of a go-go dancer, who briefly appeared atop each day wearing only silver briefs and a Sony Walkman. And if this performance playfully re-coded the stolid virtues fronting one of New York's foremost museums, 1 so the institution of art in general received further assault on the third week of the exhibition. A rectangular pool of silver-wrapped candies now covered nearly half the floor of the emptied space. Gallery goers were invited to take these candies, and depending on the number of visitors and their constitutions, the shape of the installation altered, only to be replenished and reformed into a rectangle at closing in preparation for the next day.
At first glance, Gonzalez-Torres's Every Week There Is Something Different (1991) appears to fall into the broad category of Conceptual Art, which came to the fore in the decade between 1965-75. 2 Indeed, the morphological shifts it undergoes--from the straightforward presentation of art photography to an installation which actively engages gallery visitors--aptly graphs the key tendencies of this art: the "withdrawal of the visual" and the "suppression of the [contemplative] beholder." 3 But unlike the ironic tenor or overt polemicism of, say, a Mel Bochner or a Hans Haacke, the passage from the photographs, which appeal to the disembodied eye, to the interactive candies, which involve the oral orifice and the body's alimentary tract, is mediated by erotics of the go-go dancer. The pivot from the verticality (so long associated with the purely visual) of the photographs on the wall to the horizontal plane of the candies on the floor enacts man's supposed devolution from rational being to libidinal animal in the change of axis from standing upright to laying in [End Page 1] bed. And what more appropriately marks the move from the autonomous artwork to the inclusion of the receiving subject than the erotic, the logical dénouement of which would literally take place in three-dimensional reality? (One never sees, for example, the end of a good porn.)
But it is less sex than sexuality that interests Gonzalez-Torres, whose own homosexuality and HIV+ status provided an undercurrent to his works, spinning them with a consistent if vague political dimension and allying them with feminist-inflected art as much as the works' forms veered toward (proto-)conceptual trappings. Though again, it is difficult to pin down Gonzalez-Torres, for although his reliance on the photographic and the found image follows the lead of Louise Lawler, Sherry Levine, and Barbara Kruger, there is a subjective depth and visual expression absent in his feminist counterparts. Consider Untitled (1991), consisting of an enlarged photograph of an empty bed with two nearly identical pillows indented with the shape of heads displayed on twenty-four billboards around New York City in conjunction with the exhibition Projects 34: Felix Gonzalez-Torres. This piece (clearly in dialogue with Daniel Buren's 1968 project in which 400 striped posters were scattered around Paris), rehearses the axis shift from vertical (billboard) to horizontal (bed) from Every Weeks There Is Something Different; as well, it collapses...