“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 6)

The work presented in the gallery’s second room under the title “Travel #2” figures the waiting with that precedes the belated waiting for that Derrida calls the “contretemps of mourning” [Aporias, 66].  Rendered in graphite and gouache on paper, each of thirteen identical grids bears a diagonal red line tracing an unwavering descent from the upper left-hand corner to the lower right.  The series’ title, “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline), refers the charts to an ominous tendency as monitored by doctor, patient, and anxious loved one, thus remarking, in Spector’s formulation, “the reality of AIDS’ destructive force in the most graphic of terms.  The repetitive nature of the work, whether it manifests the fate of one person [“day by day” for thirteen days – Ed.] or of thirteen, underscores the terminal character of this illness, another journey through time” [25].

The bloodwork graphs’ precise geometry is made possible and rendered legible through the abstraction of the body as well as of time – indeed, of the body in time, over time, hence ultimately of mortality.  Such abstraction, aspects of which remain indispensable for purposes of analysis and diagnosis, of course occurs before and outside the practice of contemporary western bio-science, which, however, takes it to new levels of sophistication.  Spector’s reading of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) situates the series in the context of a regime in which the diseased body is routinely “defined, diagrammed, and controlled by a biomedical authority whose value system adheres to deeply entrenched cultural and historical precepts.  This ‘authority’ treats the AIDS patient – like others who suffer from life-threatening illnesses – as an abstraction, a compilation of symptoms and statistics in which there is no place, or need, for an account of the human side of infirmity.  Within the scopic regime of the medical system, the body is studied, treated, and hopefully cured, but this body will inevitably remain an object.  Biomedical authority demands a disembodied subject…in order to function at optimum efficiency.  The doctor must abstract the patient in order properly to diagnose physical pathology” [166-7].

But the Person Living With AIDS is and is not “like others who suffer from life-threatening illnesses.”  What authorizes the viewer to refer Gonzalez-Torres’ bloodwork graphs and the “steady decline” they chart specifically to an immune system under assault by HIV is the precision with which CD4 and T-cell counts, at the time the primary medical indicators of the virus’s effects, may be measured, and translated as clinical guidelines, social policy, and psychological conviction based on a number – 200 – that defined the point of diagnosis of the onset of AIDS.  (Subsequently, the indicators of HIV would come to include new, more accurate measures, among them “total viral load”; by this latter gauge, a “steady decline” would be a welcome development.)

While the work’s portentous descending lines do not correspond precisely to a declining T-cell count, they effectively figure the dire psychological, social and political realities of an era characterized by increasingly accurate diagnosis and reliable monitoring, but capable only of a promise of more effective treatments not yet made good.  In other words, the graphs’ rigid geometry situates the work both historically and geographically, recalling its origins in a time when the first generation of AZT treatments was becoming more widely available in parts of North America and Europe, while other potential medications remained in various stages of clinical trial.  The sharp red diagonals of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) remark its provenance as an age preceding the introduction of combination therapies including protease inhibitors, which promised the possibility of outcomes – which is to say, of futures – that might be mapped otherwise.  Moreover, they attest that even those with access to the most advanced medical care on the planet were not sufficiently privileged to reverse the downward tendency, and concomitantly, that faith in the inevitability of bio-medical “progress” was likewise suffering a precipitous decline.

While the polemical force of “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) issues from a particular time and place, its reach surpasses its circumstances of origin.  In the absence of effective treatments in the 1980s and early 1990s, the vast multiplicity of identities and experiences of PLWAs could legitimately be abstracted in the form of a line that traced a shared “fate.”  With the subsequent advent of therapies that promised longer, higher-quality survival, the graphs redirect their force and acquire a new, arguably prophetic dimension.  Read a decade and more following its creation and initial exhibition, in a radically different clinical and political context, “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) figures not only the potential aftermath of HIV diagnosis, but also the matter of access, critically remarking the social, economic and geopolitical inequities that brutally divide the few who have it from the many who, to date, still lack it.  The series thus attests to the specificity of its origins, and then recasts that specificity in light of events, making the question of “whether it manifests the fate of one person or of thirteen” matter in a different way.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Tech

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