Felix Gonzalez-Torres: The Politics of Relation exhibition review at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (26/3/2021-12/9/2021), commissioned by the editorial Texte zur Kunst based in Berlin, and published by them in the Envy Issue #123.
“This September issue of Texte zur Kunst examines envy as the operating system of an art world based largely on networking, competition, and interdependencies. Envy, as understood here, develops when individuals orient and compare themselves to others. One could characterize the art world as a prototype for a competition-driven, envy-generating society; achievement in art is difficult to measure and counts less than success. Issue #123 takes a closer look at the productive as well as destructive potentials of envy in the field of art and examines the extent to which the diagnosis of envy plays into the competitive nature of work and life today. The specific social effects of contemporary forms of online communication are discussed here, as well as the political economy of envy with particular regard to art.”.
Love, Loss & Dragging Art
por Núria Gómez Gabriel
The retrospective exhibition Felix Gonzalez-Torres: The Politics of Relation currently on display at the contemporary Art Museum of Barcelona was born of the desire to politically reappraise the work of one of the most influential artists of the 20th century within the context of the pandemic. Tanya Barson, head of conservation at the museum, commissioned the exhibition and she has proposed three interpretive keys derived from postcolonial discourse for examining the conceptual and minimalist work of the Cuban-American visual artist. The exhibition centres its attention on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s relationship to Spain, to the Americas, and to the Caribbean. It also explores questions surrounding memory, authority, liberty and national identity; and it formulates a critique of homophobia, while warning about the dangers of the rise of the far right; and, finally, it also highlights the formative influence of Gonzalez-Torres on queer aesthetics.
That the artist is not born but made is something that Felix Gonzalez-Torres was always clear about. When he relocated from Puerto Rico to New York in 1979 to finish his studies, among his peers were Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Louis Lawer, Sherrie Levine, Martha Rosler, and Cindy Sherman. Emerging from the feminist critique of sexual and racial difference, these artists challenged the legitimacy of the cultural authority of Western thought throughout postmodernity to problematize the patriarchal representational system that largely excluded women and queer people from the signification system that then defined art. Against this background, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a methodology that he referred to as “dragging art.” This incorporated an aesthetic fluidity that consists in queering appropriated artistic styles such as constructivism, minimalism, and conceptual art; yet not to celebrate them but rather to subvert their sometimes rigid and politically aseptic forms.
Gonzalez-Torres’s anti-monuments, for instance, draw on the form of Donald Judd’s cubic sculptures. The simple stacks of paper invite the public to take a sheet with them,converting the audience members into active participants of the meanings of the works and also invite the musem’s staff to attend to the pieces and take care of them continuously throughout their exhibition. With this gesture the invisibilized labour making possible cultural production is rendered explicit. The artistic move also transgresses the limits constituting the popular and the elite, the historical and the present, and the public and the private. Gonzalez-Torres also used the same type of disguise for the stage in Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform, 1991), in which a go-go boy dances every day for five minutes without advance notice. With the mask of Carl André’s metal floor sculptures and Barry Le Va’s “distributions,” Gonzalez-Torres created Untitled (Blue Placebo, 1991) and Untitled (For A Man In Uniform, 1991), respectively; works that consist of a pile of candies equivalent to the bodyweight of individual people for audience members to consume. With this poetic gesture Gonzales-Torres conveys the devastating effects of bodies infected by HIV, an act of creation in the midst of so much tragic loss. In the same manner, his numerous textual portraits, such as Untitled, 1987 or Untitled, 1988 considered linguistic evocations typical of conceptual art, and operate as a critique of the chrono-normativity of progress from the romantic poetics and carrying a strong existential charge.
In the end, Gonzalez-Torres’s aesthetic strategies disguise a subtext where the political and the biographical converge. This subtext assumes that if the patriarchal trap consists in grounding the social order on biological and essentialist ideologies, then the feminist task must be to break those links, and so transvestism dragging would operate in an imitation of queering gender identity that knows it is always fabricated and theatrical. Yet in all his works, Gonzalez-Torres is careful not to reveal the keys to their interpretation. This is because his poetic drag is born from the rejection of all too easily assumed labels. Many of the typical positionings assumed by and expected from the “homosexual artist,” he commented, suggest that “underlining the homoerotic element in the work would mean falling into a trap set by the Right:
“Two clocks side by side pose a much greater threat to power than an image of two guys sucking each other’s cock, because they can’t use me as a target in their battle to destroy meaning. It’s going to be very difficult for members of Congress to tell their constituents that money is being spent promoting homosexual art if all they have to prove it are two side-by-side electrical outlets, or two mirrors, or two light bulbs, one next to another.”[i]
Hence, Gonzalez-Torres refused to assert a single reading of any of his works. Instead, each one allows and even stimulates a questioning of how the context effects how it is perceived.
Nevertheless, the manner in which Gonzalez-Torres’s works have been presented in the political “update” offered in MACBA’s retrospective, in all of its pretentiously postcolonial curatorial discourse, seems far from meeting the challenges that his work demands. The exhibition falls prey to a trap typical of the intellectual arrogance of the Anglo-Saxon academy, evidenced by a fairly hackneyed curatorial strategy in which, as the Cuban critic Iván de la Nuez characterizes it, “the Antillean culture is in charge of supplying the body into the museum of the first world [and its intellectual elite] or into its head: from there emerges the flavor; from here, the knowing.” Nuez’s reflection on how “the sample shows the context” – not only in intellectual terms, but also in geopolitical ones – of Cuba and Puerto Rico, the two Cold war “model islands” of the Caribbean, as well as the last two Spanish colonies of the Antilles, is accurate. Both have survived under the boots of colonialism, neo-colonialism, the Soviet Union, the United States, the military bases, and finally, as tourist destinations. “To rigorously enter into this complex web of politics, all these relationships would require more than replicating the simplistic postcolonialism of the Ivy League.”[ii]
Something similar also happens with the discursive pirouettes that the exhibition entertains in its intention to attend to Gonzalez-Torres’s relationship to Spain. He visited the country during his childhood in 1971, when he was sent with his sister, Gloria, from Cuba to Madrid. Before entering the first of the exhibition’s four rooms, one encounters Untitled (Republican Years, 1992). The work, one of the exhibition’s anti-monuments, indicts the United States of the Reagan-Bush era for their implacable opposition to gay rights and their criminal passivity in the face of AIDS, thus constituting an attack on the Republican Party. At MACBA, however, it is presented through a kind of countervailing praise for the Spanish State that is unconvincing. A rather forced translation that expands inside the first room when one of the artist’s most paradigmatic works, Untitled (Perfect Lovers, 1987–1990), is explained by the artist himself in terms of his love story with Ross Laycock, who then on the MACBA walls somehow ends up associated with the historically contemporaneous times of Hitler and Franco. The warning about the rise of the extreme Right today is articulated from this deviation of the perfect lovers of extermination, together with Untitled (We Don’t Remember, 1991), Untitled (It’s Just a Matter of Time, 1992) and Untitled (1990), in which the artist once again uses a watch, the image of a fascist mass, and a reproduction of the painting by Goya El Pelele (1791-1792), in a similar metal box to a first aid kit.
Still another of the political licenses that Barson takes in her curatorial operation is the adaptation of the textual portrait Untitled (Portrait of Andrea Rosen, 1992), in which the curator responds to the artist’s invitation to partially modify its content by instead configuring a completely new text. But what is undoubtedly the most irreverent aspect of the exhibition are the numerous sensational and superficial analogies drawn between the HIV virus and SARS-CoV-2 articulated in the interpretations around Double Fear (1987) or Untitled (Bloodworks, 1989).
The AIDS crisis of the late 1980s is incomparable to the crisis caused by COVID today, especially when it is done by appealing to social fear and done ever so lightly. Disregarding their differences constitutes another failed curatorial opportunity to resurrect the militancy of the historical, political, and emotional battle of Gonzalez-Torres to make visible the wounds caused by the processes of “democratic normalization” by the Spanish State. And a lost opportunity also to think along with the artist about what the politics of mourning can mean today that would embrace, as Felix-Gonzalez-Torres has done, the inseparable affective interweaving that defines the borders between love and loss.
By the end of the exhibition, one comes to a feeling that the adaptation of the artist’s work into the MACBA cultural agenda, although a legitimate approach, transforms a living and malleable organism that needs to be cared for by the museum throughout the exhibition’s duration into a kind of inert testimony of a minimalism that is lacking its soul. Yet despite such a missed opportunity, the exhibition touches on the heart of something that defines one of the biggest problems of our contemporaneity: we do not know very well what to do with the past and perhaps this is so because we do not know what to do with our present.
[i] Quote taken from the press release for Gonzalez-Torres’ solo show at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, January 20th-Feb 24th, 1990. In: Spector, Nancy (1995). Felix González-Torres. Galicia: Galician Center for Contemporary Art. P. 75.
[ii] De la Nuez, Iván (junio de 2021). El confinamiento de Félix González Torres. El Oficio. Revista Cubana de Literatura y Arte, (Cuban Review of Literature & Art, Number 9, pp. 43-51). Retrieved from https://www.eloficioart.com/magazines/revista-el-oficio-9-junio-2021.pdf (my translation).