Tag Archives: Nancy Spector

“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 8)

In explicating the significance of his work, Gonzalez-Torres had recourse more than once to Rilke’s concept of “blood-remembering” [Bluterinnerung], alluding to a passage in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge wherein, as Spector recalls, “true aesthetic achievement is deemed impossible without a lifetime of accumulated experiences that have almost literally become a part of the artist – his lifeblood…. ‘Verses are not, as people imagine, simply feelings…. They are experiences.  For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men and things, one must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly.’  Accordingly, artistic expression should reflect the complexity of a life lived, take account of the myriad events – both significant and seemingly trivial – that occur and are then forgotten, only to be recalled in altered form….” [Spector, 42]

Such blood-remembering seems to saturate Gonzalez-Torres’ recollection of the initial impulse behind the 1993 series “Untitled” (Bloodwork – Steady Decline) and its precedents dating from 1987, in terms that are in the strict sense biographical, and in the event autobiographical:  “It was this that struck me when I first saw an extensive bloodwork done on Ross, in the form of numbers and codes.  I said to him, ‘Honey, this is your blood.  Right here.  This is it.’  There was not a drop of blood there.  There wasn’t anything red.  And it was even more frightening because all the numbers could be easily reversed.  It is a total abstraction; but it is the body.  It is your life” [quoted in Spector, 167; emphasis added].  In the context of the present, partial account of the artist’s body of work and the unfolding of its effects over time, the “right here” reinflects the “this place” reiterated in the aporetic enunciation of “Untitled” (1990) – “Somewhere Better Than This Place,” “Nowhere Better Than This Place” – as a site of decision, and the viewer’s experience of nonpassage as the condition of a certain responsibility.  Anyone who elects to participate in the collaboration that the giveaway paper stacks and candy spills seek to initiate does so in response to an appeal, and indeed a provocation:  As Gonzalez-Torres observed in 1993, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction.  Without a public these works are nothing, nothing.  I need the public to complete the work.  I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility….” (Rollins, 23).  The stakes of the viewer’s decision to take part in the work by taking part of the work, partaking of its generosity, are in the artist’s own estimation high indeed.  And the outcome, whether reckoned in pragmatic or theoretical terms, is far from certain.

For

good conscience as subjective certainty is incompatible with the absolute risk that every promise, every engagement, and every responsible decision – if they are such – must run.  To protect the decision or the responsibility by knowledge, by some theoretical assurance, or by the certainty of being right, of being on the side of science, of consciousness or of reason, is to transform this experience into the deployment of a program, into a technical application of a rule or a norm or into the subsumption of a determined “case.”  All these are conditions that must never be abandoned, of course, but that, as such, are only the guardrail of a responsibility to whose calling they remain radically heterogeneous…. [Hence] the necessity of experience itself, the experience of the aporia…as endurance or as passion, as interminable resistance or remainder. [Derrida, Aporias, 19]

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“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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“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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“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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“Untitled” (I was here) (Felix Gonzalez-Torres, part 2)

Gonzalez-Torres himself inflected the tension between the works’ impermanence and their immunity to destruction in autobiographical terms:

This work originated from my fear of losing everything.  This work is about controlling my own fear.  My work cannot be destroyed.  I have destroyed it already, from day one …. That is how I made this work.  That is why I made this work.  This work cannot disappear.  This work cannot be destroyed the same way other things in my life have disappeared and have left me.  I destroyed it myself instead.  I had control over it and this is what has empowered me.  But it is a very masochistic kind of power.  I destroy the work before I make it.  [quoted in Nancy Spector, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1995, 122]

In the artist’s account of the stacks’ origins, their “how” and “why,” destruction precedes creation, the end predates the beginning, in a formulation that recalls the precarious temporality of human existence:  specifically, the metaleptical structure of what we call our lifetime insofar as it emerges against the imminent horizon of our impending death.  That such a seeming inversion in the expected order of things (“I destroy the work before I make it”) proves a telling trait of the work of art in this particular age of AIDS is adumbrated in Gonzalez-Torres’ gloss on the “one enormous collaboration with the public” that the stack pieces initiate – a give-and-take venture in which the “pieces just disperse themselves like a virus that goes to many different places – homes, studios, ships, bathrooms, whatever” [quoted in Spector, 58].  Thus, while critics were quick to point out the stacks’ formal affinities with the monolithic, manufactured solidity and singularity that characterizes the minimalist sculpture of the 1960s, as well as their indebtedness to certain tendencies in so-called conceptual art, there are emphatic differences between the paper stacks and any such precedents.  As Gonzalez-Torres assessed this attempt at a critical genealogy, “This type of work (the stacks) has this image of authority, especially after so many years of conceptual and minimal art.  They look so powerful, they look so clean, they look so historical already.  But in my case, when you get close to them you realize that they have been ‘contaminated’ with something social” [Rollins, 21].  With proximity comes a reckoning with the “contaminated” status of the stacks, which, “like all art,” are hostage to “the passage of time” and subject at least to “the possibility of erasure and disappearance,” but at a rate and to an extent that warrants differentiation rather than, or at least prior to, assimilation.

That the stacks share these susceptibilities to contamination and premature disappearance with human existence itself is rendered painfully legible in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.  The simile with which the artist characterizes the dispersal of the pages – “like a virus” – locates a crucial and perilous temporal dimension in this body of work, one that emerges again in Gonzalez-Torres’ retrospective account of the pivotal 1990 exhibition:

… I wanted to do a show that would disappear completely.  It had a lot to do with disappearance and learning…. Freud said that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them.  In a way this ‘letting go’ of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture in favor of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having [his longtime lover] Ross [Laycock] disappear day by day right in front of my eyes.  [Rollins, 13]

And yet the stack pieces bespeak not only fear, but a certain hope as well, in that they are predicated on the possibility of replenishment and restoration to their “ideal” dimensions – a possibility unavailable to Ross, for example.

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