“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 7)

In 1991 and 1993, Gonzalez-Torres created three works that cannily evoke the controversy surrounding the contemporaneous clinical trials of potential antiretroviral medications.  At the time, of course, a key demand put forward by AIDS activists was for access to experimental drugs that remained in trial – access that was for the most part paternalistically denied by governments and pharmaceutical producers arguably more concerned with matters of profit and liability than with the survival of those urgently at risk.  Conceived and executed in the shadow of this paternalism, the works in question take the form of the giveaway “candy spill” installations that Gonzalez-Torres began to create shortly after initiating the paper stacks.

At its “ideal weight,” “Untitled” (Placebo) consists of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds of candies, individually wrapped in silver cellophane and installed like a carpet on an expanse of floor in the Andrea Rosen Gallery in a 1991 exhibition entitled “Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Every Week There Is Something Different.”  “Untitled” (Blue Placebo), also dated 1991, features a similarly replenishable supply of blue cellophane-wrapped candies, installed at an ideal weight of 325 pounds.

In a version created in 1993 under the title “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape for Roni), the scattered candies proffered to the viewer are wrapped in gold foil.

Simon Watney analyzes some of the implications of this work in a far-reaching essay on Gonzalez-Torres:

A placebo is an inert substance, indistinguishable from a pharmaceutical compound in comparison to which the effects of a drug may be measured, after a sample of individuals have agreed to enter a clinical trial in which they do not know whether they are receiving the potentially therapeutic drug, or the placebo.  And yet the placebo is never just an inert substance, for it inevitably comes with a profound supplement of hope.  Moreover, as a participant in a clinical trial, one does not know whether or not one is taking a placebo every four or eight hours, sometimes for years on end.  Furthermore, the pharmaceutical compound may eventually turn out to be an effective treatment which, by receiving a placebo, one has in effect lost the opportunity to take.  On the other hand, the compound may have unintended side-effects, and even do harm.  There is also the more straightforward question of the sheer quantity of such pills one ingests in the course of the clinical trial, or any long-term therapy.  [“In Purgatory,” Parkett 39, 42]

Read in the context of the clinical trials, the offering of the edible sweets in the “Placebo” candy spills may be understood to allegorize the ongoing paternalism of corporations and governments, exercised in the name of safeguarding the “health” of the critically ill.  Figuring such placation as well as the promise of pleasure (“placebo” derives from the Latin placere, “to please”), the giveaway candy spills share with the paper stacks a tension between impermanence and indestructibility, and with the bloodwork graphs a historical specificity, a political urgency and an aesthetic strategy that enlists abstraction to make, over time, the most concrete of cases.

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

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