Candies, coughdrops and fortune cookies: Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s thought-provoking sweet shop at Wiels
I clearly remember picking up my first candy. It happened on the same day that I discovered Pipilotti Rist’s wonderful video Ever is over all (extract here). That was a good day, in New York, in December 2000. There was something mysterious and funny about that silver paper wrapping, and I’ve kept it ever since. Ten years later I’m still intrigued by the work of the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996). So I’m glad there’s a retrospective of his work at Wiels (Brussels). One that will travel to Basel and Frankfurt later on. Don’t miss it.
‘It will be great to do tours with kids’, one of the museum guides said to me during the press conference, right before the opening of Specific objects without specific form. ‘But we’ll have a much harder time with adults.’ I understand. Children will be happy to be able to touch those works of art and take away a couple of candies. But how do you explain to adults that 12 cords with lightbulbs or three stacks of black doormats are works of art?
The piles of candies and his stacks of paper. That’s what Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres is probably most known for. And you’ll be able to see them at Wiels. You’ll see the pairs that he is also famous for: two clocks or two mirrors. Gonzalez-Torres settled in New York in the early 1980’s, where he studied art and began his practice as an artist. His works bear references to conceptual art and minimalism, and he loved playing with ‘certainties’ within the art world: the exhibition as a a place to look but not touch, the author as the ultimate form-giver. But at the same time there’s room for poetry as well. Take that pile of silver candies titled ‘Lover boys’ for instance: the weight of the pile should ideally be 161 kg, the weight of Gonzalez-Torres and his lover, who died of aids. And it goes without saying that those two clocks just had to be called ‘Two lovers’.
Gonzalez-Torres once changed the arrangement of his artworks weekly, during one exhibition, and for another one he changed the form and content of the exhibition when it went from one venue to another. That’s why it’s really fitting that the exhibition at Wiels (curated by Elena Filipovic) will be completely reinstalled later on by Danh Vo, an artist from Vietnam living in Berlin. His ‘version’ of Specific objects without specific form will be onview from the 5th of March onwards.
I loved walking among these often quite simple works of art. Works that always come with a little extra. The piles of doormats, with letters and keys hidden in between. Piles that, for once, you aren’t allowed to touch, because that’s the privilege of the collector who bought this work. Or that other pile of candies: USA Today. The museum is free to choose the form of the pile and the amount of candies. The only prerequisite is that the candies should be wrapped in the colors of the American flag: red, white (silver) and blue.
I know it’s the same for every exhibition, but this is really one you should know more about, because it makes Gonzalez-Torres’ work even more intriguing. Take the pile of fortune cookies for instance: Gonzalez-Torres wants all of them to have positive messages inside. Or the golden curtain: it absolutely has to hang in the middle of the room, as to divide a room. Or ‘Untitled (Throat)’ – a piece that has been on display only once before – with those coughdrops: they are laying on a handkerchief that once belonged to his father.
Don’t forget the 4th panorama floor,with those inscriptions on the walls (‘Untitled’, 1989/1985). Museums are allowed to change the inscriptions with names and dates. Elena Pilipovic, for instance, could easily have added Wiels 2010, but she preferred to use the ‘last’ version of this work. The one Gonzalez-Torres put on the walls of a museum before he died of aids related complications in 1996.
And for those who still doubt there’s a deeply personal and poetic aspect to Gonzalez-Torres work, this is a quote from an interview about ‘Untitled (Placebo)’, that floor covered with candies that you can see on that same 4th floor at Wiels. ‘There was no other consideration involved except that I wanted to make art work that could disappear, that never existed, and it was a metaphor for when Ross (his partner Ross Laycock) was dying. (…) Of course it has to do with all the bullshit of seduction and the art of authenticity. I know that stuff, but on the other side, it has a personal level that is very real. It’s not about being a con artist. It’s also about excess. About the excess of pleasure. It’s like a child who wants a landscape of candies. First and foremost it’s about Ross. Then I wanted to please myself and then everybody.’ (read full interview by Robert Storr here)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ‘Specific objects without specific form’, Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Av. Van Volxem 354, 1190 Brussels, through April 25. Info here.