“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 4)

Two more paper stacks created in 1991 and 1993 make explicit the allegorical significance of travel in Gonzalez-Torres’ oeuvre, condensed in an observation of his own:  “Traveling is also about dying.  It is, after all, about death” [quoted in Spector, 81].   The parenthetical subtitle of “Untitled” (Passport), a column of blank white pages, evokes a document authorizing the crossing of international borders, while the work itself offers the viewer its version of the pages on which evidence of past and present voyages is stamped and signed.  [Cf. the opening paragraph of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor:  “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”]  In retrospect, such inscriptions constitute a kind of elliptical autobiography, “a diary of motion, a chronicle of geographic wanderings, a palimpsest of other spaces and other times” [Spector, 24].  The paper stack also alludes to the passport’s legal function as a form of identification that operates according to established codes of citizenship, gender, and age.  In the absence of information and image, the empty pages here “leave the question of identity open-ended; the blank pages, available for the taking, announce journeys not yet traveled and borders not yet crossed” [Spector, 24], serving in effect as screens both for the projection of travel to come, and against which rigid codes of identity emerge in stark relief.  With “Untitled” (Passport II) (1993), Gonzalez-Torres presents his viewers with giveaway twelve-page booklets, bound and stacked on the floor, that feature photographic images of birds in flight, ignorant of the borders below.

Read in the context of the increasingly global impact of an epidemic-turned-pandemic that recognizes and respects no borders, the “Passport” stacks may subtly conjure contemporaneous epidemiological attempts to locate a mythical “Patient Zero” to whom responsibility for the advent of AIDS in North America might be assigned, and the eventual “identification” of this personified point of origin as Quebecois flight attendant Gaetan Dugas.  The critical force unleashed in this work subdues the temptation of flight, the seduction of escape, driving home the hard truth that there remain no safe harbours (and thus reinflecting the paratactic inscriptions of “Untitled” (1990) – “Somewhere Better Than This Place” and “Nowhere Better Than This Place”).  Moreover, the “Passport” stacks allude to the ethics and politics of the right to travel, to relocate, to cross certain borders, a right too often selectively denied, and withheld from the seropositive specifically solely on the grounds of their putative health status.

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

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