Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) was a Cuban-born American artist who worked during the AIDS epidemic in New York City. This review is an extract of a research I did about the relationship between the artwork Untitled (A Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991) and its audience.
When Untitled (A Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is on view, it attracts a lot of attention. #candypile #theyaregivingawayfreecandyonthefourthfloor #dotouchtherartwork are only a few examples of Instagram captions. The artwork is a pile of candy, wrapped in shiny vibrant coloured cellophane. The visitors are allowed – even encouraged – to take a piece of candy. Usually, there is an information tag next to it to explain that the candy pile is a portrait of the artist’s belated lover Ross who died of AIDS in 1991. At first glance, it is harrowing to see how people focus on taking pictures of the candy pieces and posting it on Instagram instead of the actual meaning of the artwork. Questions are being raised as an effect of this affair. Why are people encouraged to touch and eat the artwork? How could a pile of candy be a portrait of someone? Why does this happy and shiny pile refer to such a poignant and sad event?
Gonzalez-Torres’ portraits, in general, should be regarded as a personal connotation (specific kind of association) of a person in material form. In an interview with celebrity curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, FGT explains that semioticus Roland Barthes was influential for his work. Barthes explained in his infamous essay: “The Death of the Author” that a text is a construction of different writings, drawn from many cultures and it enters into mutual relations of dialogue. The place where this comes together is the place of the reader. So, the authority in terms of the construction of meaning does not reside in the intentions of the writer. Rather, meaning is consistently derived from different writings, drawn from many cultures and therefore it is understood as something open to constant reinterpretation dependent on the reader.
FGT applied this construction to his artwork. At this point, the role of the viewer comes into play since the viewer is the one creating meaning in his work. He elaborates this by saying: “I need a viewer. I need a public for that work to exist […] without a public this work has no meaning. […] This work is about an interaction with the public, or a large collaboration.”
It is necessary to emphasise again that Ross – FGT’s boyfriend – died of AIDS in 1991. Gonzalez-Torres needs the viewer to take away the pieces of the pile because the decline of the pile mirrors Ross’ body suffering of AIDS. The candy pile starts with 80 kg – Ross’ weight before he was sick – and it gets smaller and smaller until it vanishes. Just like Ross’ life.
The pile gets replenished after it has disappeared. FGT explains his use of a “unlimitedness” medium: the work is unstable. But he enjoys this “in-between-ness” because it’s close to his own life situation. As a gay man, he is confronted daily by culture and language to live a life of “in-between”. So as he is being marginalised, he is attracted to a marginalised medium.
After digging into FGT’s view and approach to art, I realise that he probably wouldn’t have mind as much as I would have thought that the relation between the artwork and suffering is overlooked. Because he used to tell the viewer “you are responsible for the final meaning of this piece”. So – at second glance – in the year 2017, the meaning is that is is very “insta-lishes”.