“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 3)

Unfolding over time (“from day one,” “day by day”), the manifold effects of this giveaway oeuvre extend well beyond the provenance of its exhibition in New York in 1990.  Two exemplary components of the installation may serve to test the critical as well as theoretical claims that Gonzalez-Torres makes for it in the letter cited in the gallery’s press release, as well as to gauge the ongoing stakes of the work in question.

“Untitled” (The End) is a vertical assemblage of blank white pages, each imprinted with a thick border of black ink.  The artist’s characteristically parenthetical subtitle here evokes an unsettling prematurity (resonant with his assertion that “I destroy the work before I make it”), and invests the emphatic black border with a sense of life’s “most radical definition or demarcation:  death,” even as the unadorned whiteness within “simultaneously proffer[s] and defer[s] a promise of meaning” [Jean Avgikos in Artforum, February 1991, 81], waiting to receive “a projected image of whatever it is you fear losing the most, whatever it is you will want to memorialize” [Spector, 129].  Like Derek Jarman’s poignant calculation of his life expectancy in Blue (“The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life”), the dark delineation of “Untitled” (The End) deploys for autobiographical as well as historiographical purposes an ancient rhetorical tradition that figures death as a passage, the traversal of a line that would define or demarcate life’s limit or term, and translates it graphically in the manner of a public death notice, in endlessly reproducible copies offered by the artist as a gift to his viewers.

This “almost universal figure” according to which “death is represented as the crossing of a border, a voyage between the here and the beyond…toward this or that place beyond the grave” is subjected to a sustained analysis in Jacques Derrida’s Aporias.

What, then, is it to cross the ultimate border?  What is it to pass the term of one’s life?…. Is it possible?  Who has ever done it and who can testify to it?…. Crossing the threshold, this “I pass”… puts us on the path… of the aporos or of the aporia:  the difficult or the impracticable, here the impossible, passage, the refused, denied or prohibited passage, indeed the nonpassage, which can in fact be something else, the event of a coming or of a future advent…. [7-8]

If the indelible enclosure of “Untitled” (The End), read through its subtitle, figures a prohibited passage, hence the improbability if not the impossibility of traversal from one side to the other, from here to there, another of the works displayed in the 1990 exhibition would seem to occasion for its viewer a certain experience of nonpassage.

A pair of paper stacks of identical dimensions were installed in close proximity, recalling, as curator and critic Nancy Spector observes, “other intimate pairings in the artist’s work – in particular, the synchronized, matching clocks of “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1987-90).  On closer inspection, however, the two stacks failed to embody the notion of harmonious coupling.”  For read together, the inscriptions juxtaposed on their respective top sheets – “Somewhere Better Than This Place” and “Nowhere Better Than This Place” – do not simply posit a paradox or a logical contradiction, nor do they allow for a dialectical synthesis.  According to Spector’s vivid account, the paratactic legends of “Untitled” prompted in the viewer “a feeling of ambiguity:  one intimating a more desirable reality than the present situation, the other affirming that the present is the best place to be, each stack annulled the message of the other.  Their concurrent yet contrary epigraphs induced a peculiar sensation of paralysis, a feeling of immobility generated by circumlocution and indecision.”  In this instance, Gonzalez-Torres’ gift to the viewer, before that of the pages themselves, is first of all an experience (“the word also means passage, traversal, endurance and rite of passage” [Derrida, Aporias, 14-15]) of nonpassage, or, more precisely, a chance or opportunity not so much to surpass the aporia as to put it to a certain test, in a reading that would recognize that this “formulation of the paradox and of the impossible therefore calls upon a figure that resembles a structure of temporality, an instantaneous dissociation from the present” [Aporias, 17].  If, “like all art,” the untitled twin stacks are “about leaving this place for some other place maybe better than this place,” a reading that allows for a dissociation from the present, and indeed for “the passage of time” (for example, the time of “leaving,” or the time inscribed in the promise of “some other place maybe better than this place”) might elicit here the allegorical dimension that Gonzalez-Torres would elaborate in subsequent work.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

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