Like so much of Gonzalez-Torres’ corpus, “Untitled” (Beginning) is haunted by the artist’s prior efforts, formally, materially, and linguistically (invoking in particular “Untitled” [The End]). But its orientation is not exclusively or even primarily toward the past, for the bead curtain (read, again, through its parenthetical subtitle) discloses “the structure of a promise – and thus the memory of that which carries the future, the to come, here and now” [Derrida, Aporias, 19].
The work’s other crucial temporal dimension has to do with the time of passage, of the step or steps that conveyed the gallery visitor through the parted beadstrings, as through a doorway, an entrance or an exit. This time is part and parcel of Gonzalez-Torres’ gift of an experience, here a passage through a porous and permeable threshold (an allusion, perhaps, to the numerical threshold, the T-cell count of 200, taken to demarcate the onset of AIDS) from “this place” to “this place,” from here to still here. The allegorical import in this instance is consistent with that of the earlier work; indeed, the short trip across the gallery floor arguably subsumes, in an experience, all that the artist gave us to think in the “Passport” stacks and the “Travel” installations.
To borrow Derrida’s terms once again,
it is the originary and underivable character of death, as well as the finitude of the temporality in which death is rooted, that decides and forces us to decide to start from here first, from this side here. A mortal can only start from here, from his mortality. His possible belief in immortality, his irresistible interest in the beyond, in gods or spirits, what makes survival structure every instant in a kind of irreducible torsion, the torsion of a retrospective anticipation that introduces the untimely moment and the posthumous in the most alive of the present living thing, the rearview mirror of a waiting-for-death…at every moment, and the future anterior that precedes even the present, which it only seems to modify, all this stems first from his mortality…. [Aporias, 55]
Gonzalez-Torres’ own formulations underscore the ethical and political ramifications of the necessity of starting from here, in terms of the responsibility entailed in a reckoning with human mortality.
Once we believe that there is no God, that there is no afterlife, then life becomes a very positive statement. It becomes a very political position because then we have no choice but to work harder to make this place the best place ever. Once you agree that there is not any other life, that there’s nothing except here – this thing, this table, you, me – that’s it. That becomes a very radical idea because you have to take responsibility to make it the best. [Rollins, 29-30]
More succinctly, he translates the imperative (“you have to”) for himself: “I have to make this a better place because, so far, I’ve never been anywhere else than this place and I don’t know anyone who has.” [“Interview” with Bruce Ferguson, Rhetorical Images, 1990]
In the same spirit, the artist’s “Untitled” (Beginning) offers the “viewer” (who, in accepting this or indeed any other of Gonzalez-Torres’ offerings, becomes more and other than a viewer) the extraordinary gift of an experience of passage that is also an experience of nonpassage – one that involves, not “leaving this place for some other place maybe better than this place,” but rather remaining responsibly in this place, on this side. It may be that the brief duration of the step through the parted bead curtain figures – which is to say, allegorizes – the passage of time that makes of this experience “something else, the event of a coming or of a future advent,” in and to this place. It may also be that, in order to attain some other, better place, we do not have to leave this one – only to make this a better place, assuming responsibility for the work, and the time, that will be required.