Portraits of Artists 26

Conversation with Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: That "Passport piece No. 2" which is a white stack, 24 inches by 24 inches by 6 inches high with just white paper you can take, the public can take, functions like most of my work. I need a viewer, I need a public for that work to exist. Without a viewer, without a public, this work has no meaning, it's just another fucking, boring sculpture sitting on the floor and that is not what this work is all about. This work is about an interaction with the public, or a large collaboration.
That "Passport piece" is really about the way we are defined in our culture, the way our self is constructed through many different channels. One of these channels is that little thing called "passport" which identifies us as coming from some type of gender, coming from some kind of country and also being born somewhere and with a date. To top it all, it has numbers; that's what we are, that number is unique, no one else in America has that number except me in the passport. And that again is another definition of who we are, in a very abstract way.
One of the things that bucks the hell in the last few years is this whole talk about "body-art" which is almost like the criminal system. These people, in order to think about a body, to talk about a body, need to see a body, right. As if you are going to a gallery, you see five bodies hanging everywhere, people say "Oh, it's about the body". I say "Well no, shit, but it is not really about the body, it's about wax, or it's about plaster", because the body at this time in our history, at this time in culture, is defined not just by the flesh but it is defined also by the law, by legislation, by language first of all. Therefore, when we feel pain in the body, when we feel decay in the body, when we feel pleasure in the body, all those issues are very much related to the law or to the symbolic order, in that case to the phallocentric order.
Of course there is our rejection or our acceptance of that order, sometimes we accept certain parts and sometimes we reject certain parts of that. But that functions only vis-à-vis the definition that is based on language and I think when you see a passport really what you are seeing is a body there because it is about a definition of a body. A body that can travel from one place to another, only based on the fact that there is a passport that is defining us and that sometimes can be helpful or could be detrimental. (.)

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Do you think that maybe in more general terms this is also linked to the way you work between a private space and a public space? I think of your billboard work which was at 24 places at the same time and then as a project inside of MOMA. Showing an unmade bed as you did in this work certainly refers to a very intimate, most private space and then in a certain way there is a public dimension to this private issue.

FGT: Well, I mean the billboard on MOMA came from a very specific personal impulse. I needed to see my bed, I needed distance first of all; let me put it this way for you: I needed distance from my bed and that bed became a site that was not only the place I sleep in, it was also the place of pain at night. That is the personal impulse and then, there are also the formal issues and other issues that just influence the way we work, right.
I was asked by MOMA to do this show and I am someone who tries to be honest with, I mean with the way I feel; at least I try. So when I went to MOMA, when I went to see the room – it is such a beautiful room – I said "Why fuck it up with art ?" This place does not need any art, it is a very beautiful space, let's do something outside, and besides that, they have so much art already they can handle. So I said "Why don't we do something that includes all the possibilities and that is not just this very prescribed notion of having a project in which you just show like in a showroom, you just show your wares?" So, the initial idea was not to show anything even inside the museum, not to have any billboards inside, just to have the booklets that told people where to go to see the things in the streets. But there were some problems with that with the museum; it is almost like, you know, they need to see the money worth. So I put one piece there, which I am happy I did now, and then I showed, like you said, 24 of the same image at 24 places in the city. They showed my unmade bed in which two people slept or had left their impression on the bed, on the pillows. At this point we have to question if there is anything . if there really exists any division between public and private.
Recent developments in America, and I can only talk about America, because that's where I live, that's where I am, have proven that there is not such a thing like a private space or a public space, especially for certain segments of the population, who love people from the same gender, from the same sex. In this case, you know, I am referring to the year 1986, Howard versus Georgia, in which the Supreme Court voted that gay men and lesbians have no right for privacy, that the state could actually go into their bedrooms and legislate and penalize the way they express love to each other. You know the words "Some people are more equal than others" but that's another story. I think at this point in history what we are really talking about is private property (and perhaps not even that) and not about private space because our most intimate desires, phantasies, stories are intersected by sectors legislated and controlled by the law. And again, when we are talking about public spaces I always wonder how public it is when all the Phillip Morris and Marlboro can actually pay for these public spaces.
When I started making these stacks in 1981 it was because (it may sound funny) at that time in New York everybody was fighting for wall space, I mean, the walls were all already taken. When you were going to a show you had to go into a fist fight to get two inches on the wall, right. So I said "Fuck the walls, I just do something on the floor". No one was doing sculptures, now everyone is doing "give-away-stuff". 
But I mean that is just one point, the other thing is that I have always been very interested in the writings of Walter Benjamin, especially at that time I was just coming out from the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program where I read for the first time 1981, 1983, Walter Benjamin. I was very influenced by that writing and the relevance of that writing in our time, in our culture and I wanted to make a work that took some of those ideas into consideration. That work does not really exist, therefore the work in there has been destroyed because there is never an original.

HUO: It is like unlimited!

FGT: It's an unlimited issue, you know.

HUO: But that is interesting with regard to what you describe as the non-chronological issue of time, like Deleuze talks about "alter", this idea that the real problem is not the beginning or the end of a thing but like the "in-between". In this sense this unlimited issue also leads to this or is certainly linked, I think, to that instability, a very general issue of instability in the sense that the work diminishes its end again.

FGT: The work is always extremely unstable. For example there is only ideal heights or ideal weights or ideal papers. But that is one thing I enjoy very much. I enjoy that danger, that instability, that in-between-ness. If you want to relate it to a personal level I think as a gay man that has a lot to do with my way of being in which I am forced by culture and by language to always live a life of "in-between", in one thing or the other. So I think in that case the work is pretty close to that real life situation that I am daily confronted with as a gay man. The work was an attempt, especially at that time, in 87/89, when we still had the height of the eighties, you might want to call it "art market", right. You know, and then you had this stack on the floor that was not an original and you could never have an original, you could show this piece in three places at the same time and it would still be the same piece and it was almost like a threat, not only a threat but a re-interpretation of that art market and the marketing of an original piece which it really never is, as I said before. And at the same time the work is almost like a metaphor because you cannot destroy something that does not exist. The same (applies to) the billboard, . it just disappeared but will come out again in a different cover, in a different cultural, historical context.

HUO: Like appearing and disappearing. Like in Venice when the stack was very small it very soon was not visible anymore but could reappear at any other place, so in this sense it's certainly again linked to this "in-between-thing".

FGT: Well, I mean it was not just at that time dealing with the ideas of Walter Benjamin and the "Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction" and trying to destroy the aura of the artwork but also, on a more personal level, it was about learning to let go. When I first made a show with Andrea Rosen which was only stacks, I mean the show could have disappeared if you'd have had a big lot of people coming to the show, 'cause everything was free for the people to take. Just to quote Sigmund Freud: "We rehearse our worst fears in order to lessen them", right. So at that time I was losing Ross, so I wanted to lose everything in order to rehearse that fear and just confront that fear and perhaps learn something from it. So I wanted even to lose the work, this stuff that is very important in my life. I also wanted to learn to let go.
(.) The first piece I made, those slides, have to do with America. They have to do with the freedom in America, have to do with the desire for freedom in America and again, it is very important to mention that those pieces are very democratic too, because whoever has them, whoever installs them decides the installation of the piece: how the piece is gonna look, how it's gonna be installed. Though they are all exactly the same, though they are very democratic. They are all exactly the same but they all are different because they always get installed differently. Therefore they all have different titles. Again, once I install them for the first time, maybe, sometimes I don't even install them for the first time. After that, whoever gets them, a collector or a museum or an art handler or an art installer at a gallery will decide how this piece gets installed. I have no saying – once I lose my domains the piece is on its own and it gets installed, you know, any way the person wants it; it can be on/up, whatever.

HUO: So it is not this idea, like very often with conceptual work or minimal art that there are these certificates, which are like a controlling .

FGT: No, I have not that phobia of the two inches, you know, if a work is two inches to the left you have to destroy the work! No, that's just that big thing from the 60ies, that they were like constipated. I always say "Honey, take a bow and relax, no big deal", two inches, three inches. But it is funny because, you know, when I send this stuff to museums, art handlers and historians have a hard time to decide what to do with these things. They keep faxing us back saying "What do we do with this thing?"; and we keep faxing them back saying "Whatever you want!"; and they just don't believe it, they say "This cannot be true!"

HUO: So, they are refusing this kind of .

FGT: Right, they want the traditional conceptual instruction saying "five inches to the left, six inches to the right and then 22 feet down" and I say "No, you do whatever you want, you are responsible for the piece, you are responsible for the construction of the piece, you do with it whatever you want!" In the same way I ask the viewer: "You are responsible for the final meaning of this piece of paper that is part of this stack". And that's problematic on many levels, because what is the piece? Is the piece the simple sheet of paper or is the piece the stack? Well, it could be both and I never define which one is which. I like that "in-between-ness" that is not easy to define, this stuff, hopefully.
I asked people if they wanted to do a portrait of someone. I asked them to give me a list of personal events and public events that have affected their lives and then I just read them and I add new ones or go back and ask them for more information. The whole thing is based on the idea of a photograph. In our culture we read photographs in two ways: what is denoted and what is connoted. What is denoted is that kind of thing that we have very little to argue about; for example: if it is a black and white photograph, if it is a photo of a man or a woman, if this man or woman has long hair, short hair, blond hair, brown hair, black hair, curly hair, big eyes, small eyes, whatever; that is the stuff that is denoted, right. The person is wearing a shirt or is wearing a coat, or is wearing nothing; that's denoted, right. But what is connoted is the other way of reading the photographs which for me is the most interesting, which has to do with the text that we have in our heads: This person with the long hair, is that a 60ies hair cut or is that a Vidal Sassoon 70ies hair cut? Or is the coat just a simple T-shirt or is it a Dolce & Gabbana T-shirt, or is it a Pierre Cardin T-shirt? Is that builduing in the background an Adolf Loos or is it a Corbusier? That is what is connoted! In order for us to read a photograph we have to have a language transaction. The only way we can read a photograph is through language. So I decided to go the other way, to get rid of the image and use just the language. In order to read a photograph this person who was getting the portrait made gives me a date, let's say for example "Silverhouse 1964", and none of us had a fucking idea what "Silverhouse" is, but the person does have a very specific idea, you know, as a subject, of what "Silverhouse" meant in his/her life. It is the same when we look at a photograph. The photograph really, as Barthes said, does not have an index, it is just not telling us much, it is just a photograph of a woman, but where was this woman? Was she in Vienna, Berlin, Cuba, Havanna? I mean, where was this woman, where was this photograph taken?
It is very little these photographs can tell, can tell us. In a way, this portrait of Austrian Airlines was related to the same work I have been doing the last five years on portraits. These portraits get painted directly on the wall in a room, way up, high up like a frieze, like a Greek frieze, all around the room.

HUO: Again, places and dates .

FGT: (.) With the portrait of Austrian Airlines I wanted to give the people something very beautiful and something enabling them to travel in their minds to all these places – when they see Amman, when they see Minsk, when they see Moscow, when they see London, when they see the word New York. Some of them either had been there or had seen pictures of these places or maybe want to go to these places or maybe they don't want to go there at all. But at least these places are there and hopefully when they read these texts something will be triggered in their minds about these places.
For me the ideal thing is when something takes place, when there is some action, when there is some movement, when there is some travel in the minds, when the work becomes some kind of catalytical element for something to happen, for something to become possible. Think of the light string at Jennifer Flay which allowed the viewer to go to the dancing, and the public started to dance which was a complete new perspective for me because, as you know, I had two couples who were supposed to come and do it and then suddenly the viewer, the public started doing it.

HUO: And it kept on going .

FGT: It kept on going! That was a very nice surprise for me. But again, the viewer is something that I love, is something that I need for the work to exist, to happen, for the final meaning of the work. Because otherwise, like I said before, this is another boring minimal piece of shit sitting on the floor and that is not what my work is all about. That is a problem when I apply for grants because they get these slides and these things sitting on the floor and especially when there are sculptors as part of the panel they look at this stuff and say "Oh", you know, "Sculptures!" But this is not what it really is about. This is almost like an excuse to really find my role as an artist because I see myself almost like a theatre director directing a very spontaneous performance. Even with a stack, when the viewer takes the paper from the stack or takes the booklet from the stack, or when the viewer takes the candy and eats it and shits, you know, the candy piece at the end, because that is the final piece when the candy or the sweet gets eaten and then is spilt as shit from the body, that is also, you know, again an ultimative collaboration because I am actually giving energy to this body to function.

HUO: But isn't it, at the same time, also very often like being a presence in the absence or .

FGT: . this "in-between-ness" which is the thing I find very exciting because it is almost like straight acting; like I said before, as a gay man I think that has a lot to do with the way I do work because I always said I wanna be the spy. I want to be the one that looks like something else in order to infiltrate, in order to function as a virus. I mean, the virus is our worst enemy but should also be our model in terms of not being the opposition anymore, not being very easily defined, so that then we can attach ourselves to institutions which are always going to be there – and, as Althusser said, these institutions or these ideological institutions are always replicating themselves. If we are attached to them as a virus we will replicate together with these institutions. As we know, these ideological apparatuses are never going away, they always are going to be there and when we think we have pinned them down they replicate themselves somewhere else. I think that's a fascinating aspect of being an infiltrator or working as a virus being attached to these institutions.

HUO: So that's why it is very important, coming back to the beginning, to the MOMA project which is in the inside and the outside at the same time.

FGT: Right.

HUO: Like oscillating and in this sense also like dynamizing doors .

FGT: Right, absolutely. And there is also the context of that work, I mean, it's not just about two empty beds. It could be about the way some people read it in the streets. It was about emptiness, it was about homelessness, it was about, you know, love, man – woman, man – man, woman – woman, whatever; it was about an announcement for a movie that was about to come; it was about advertisement for a White Sale at Bloomingdale's. It could be about anything. And that is exactly the way I want it to function, because some other readings would be right. But the reading that I wanted to give into the work is very subtle, it is not about confrontation, it is about being accepted, and then, once you accept these things to your life then I say to you: "But I just want you to know that this is about this" and then it is already too late, it is already inside the room.

(Vienna, March 1994)