Below is an essay I wrote at university. It was the first essay of the course, written for the first art subject module, before it was called art and photography subject, if I remember properly. I got marked 15 out of 16, of course, an A grade, just like subsequent essays I wrote. All that differs from the original Word document and the essay as it appears below is the exact formatting of the images, and the use of the em dash (in 2006 I did not know about dashes as opposed to hyphens). There are quite a lot of dashes in the essay, and the em dash maybe isn't so good for using often, but I do like the em dash.
3: Select a recognised body of work produced in the last ten years or so and critically evaluate it. You could take into account such issues such as the place of the audience, the conventions of the gallery space, the context of the work and/or how this affects its meaning.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in 1957 and died ten years ago, in January 1996. He was born in Guaimaro, Cuba, but left the country for Madrid when he was thirteen. He has studied and lived in numerous places, including New York, Paris and California. Gonzalez-Torres' works of art most often asked many questions and relied on the active participation of the viewer to complete the meaning of the work.
For example, the work "Untitled (Arena)", 1993 relies on the viewer picking up on the subtle references to dancing—there are headphones placed on the wall, but no label insisting why they are there—to complete the work. It is because no meaning is forced on to the work by the artist that the viewer's decision about how exactly to see this work of art is what completes it. The only meaning implied is in the title, but even that is in parentheses. If I were viewing the piece in a gallery instead of in a book, I would wonder what it was about—after all, it is simply several light bulbs suspended from the ceiling in the shape of a square—then I would question the title of the piece. Its main title is "Untitled"; therefore the parentheses must mean something to the work. I would question why the word "arena" has been chosen, and what it actually means. Upon looking around the "arena" I may perhaps notice the headphones and wonder what they are doing there. If I had gone so far as to put on the headphones then I would be closer to understanding the meaning of the piece. This illustrates the point that Gonzalez-Torres' work is all about the way each viewer completes the meaning of the works. I could quite easily view "Untitled (Arena)" as simply hanging lights, but if I were to put the headphones on and break unspoken gallery codes of conduct by dancing under the lights, I become part of the work to be viewed by somebody else. I have made a decision to do something that completely changes and directly affects the meaning of the work for other viewers. Where some conceptual art works might directly give answers or meaning through the use of language, the participatory nature of "Untitled (Arena)" asks questions instead of answering them.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres' work is very varied in the form it takes. For example, "Untitled (Perfect Lovers)", 1987–1990 is a work that employs two ordinary, yet identical, analogue clocks.
Seeing it in a book with the title to hand instantly gives meaning to the work for me, unlike if I were viewing it in a gallery. The clocks are identical and show the exact same time. For me, the work and its title make reference to the idea of two people who get on very well and are "in sync". However, I think that it is the title that assists this instant meaning, as the clocks could very well be anywhere and as such the setting does not necessarily imply any meaning on the work. It also uses Duchamp's idea of the readymade, which continues to ask questions through the work instead of answering them. If these clocks are just ordinary clocks that could be bought from anywhere and used by anybody then the displaying of them as "art" is surely to do with the interpretation of meaning. Only the title offers any meaning and how the viewer chooses to read the work as a whole—where it is situated, the title, the actual piece—gives further meaning to the work. Indeed, it would be interesting to have several artists displaying the same item in different situations with different titles because that would emphasise the idea of the viewer supplying meaning and completing the work.
Maurizio Cattelan once stole an entire show from a gallery to display it as his own for a show that he had the next day because he did not have any work ready. He was witnessed and told to return the whole lot, but had he succeeded without being witnessed then "his" works would have essentially been meaningless; as he did not have anything to do with them there would not have been any personal meaning in it, the only meaning would have come from the viewers who would assume that there is meaning there to be extracted. This is kind of how Gonzalez-Torres' work is—without the viewer there is little meaning. Indeed, he himself said, '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' (Rollins, 1993, p.23).
Jigsaws are another form used by Gonzalez-Torres, such as in "Untitled (Chief Justice's Hands)", 1991. The images in these jigsaws are often appropriated, taken from newspaper sources and this further pushes the notion of the artist as the only author of a piece of art. As the image is not his own, not only he is the artist for making and titling the work, but the viewer again brings something to the finished piece, and also the newspaper because they provided the original image and original context. Gonzalez-Torres appropriates the image to mean what he wants, and then the meaning changes into something else again when the viewer views the work.
"Untitled (Placebo)", 1991 is the work of art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres that I like the most. It takes a completely different form to the three previously mentioned works—it is a spill of candy, and there is one ton of candy in the work. It is not strictly a readymade because Gonzalez-Torres does more than take an everyday object and place it in a gallery environment to make the work. By having more than one piece of chocolate, meaning is implied and questions are asked—there is a reason for having several thousand pieces of chocolate as opposed to just one. From afar, the chocolates look like a sea of something. This "something" may be made clearer by the title—placebos are sugar-coated pills.
Besides installation works, Gonzalez-Torres does make photographic art. An example is called "Untitled (Alice B. Toklas' And Gertrude Stein's Grave, Paris)", 1992, which appears to be a bed of flowers, not graves. The title's parentheses tell the viewer what it is a photograph of, leaving more questions to be answered. I can see that these are the graves of two females, that the graves appear as one, and this suggests that they were partners. Knowing that Gonzalez-Torres was himself gay suggests that these people may have significance to gay arts. On the other hand, they may be just two unknown people. Either way, the question of why Stein and her partner are important to Gonzalez-Torres is left to be answered. Perhaps it is a way for him to express what he wanted for him and his partner when he died—for them to be buried together.
The intentions of Felix Gonzalez-Torres' work do not seem to vary too much from work to work. The main intention of his work is to pose questions—questions about conventions and protocols, questions about authorship and questions about context. However, his work also is about exchange. He presents the world with a work of art, and we in turn try to think about and answer the questions that come with it; he presents a work of art and we try to complete it.
His works instigate debate and discussion, unlike with fine art perhaps, where the work is to be viewed and admired from a safe distance. Although the main intention is to ask questions and for the viewer to complete the meaning, Gonzalez-Torres does not just rely on the viewer. He places meaning on these works too; if he wanted only the viewer to provide the meaning of his works he would work solely with ready-mades, where the objects have only function and no meaning.
In the paperstacks of "Untitled", 1989/1990 and "Untitled (NRA)", 1991 and the candy spills of "Untitled (Placebo)" and "Untitled (Rossmore II)", 1991 viewers are invited by the artist to take away a part of the piece. Dare we? By doing so we are violating the protocols of galleries and museums by getting close to a work of art, by touching it and then by removing a part of it or disturbing it. As there is not a great deal of art out there that invites us to do so this, and galleries and museums often have employees in the same room as works, viewers will no doubt feel uncomfortable at the idea of touching a work.
However, knowing about this artist I would certainly agree to do as he wants, and take a part of it or rearrange it how I want it to be. I can understand why Gonzalez-Torres said he "needs" the viewer—I understand that there does need to be exchange between the artist and the viewer because that is what he wants. If we do not participate in his art it would destroy the core function of the work.
"Untitled (Placebo)", "Untitled (Rossmore II)", "Untitled" and "Untitled (NRA)", along with the jigsaws, also challenge the authority that museums and galleries have over art works. They are the ones who try to preserve a work, and for Gonzalez-Torres to literally give away his work directly goes against this authority that they have. The worth is undermined by the idea that a work of art can be in more than one place at any one time, thereby questioning the idea of the original, which in turn could lower the price of the work. This is bad for galleries and art collectors also because they want to have the only copy of a piece of art, and they want it to be worth a great deal. It is good, however, for people to stop and think about these conventions that are followed, generally, without thought or questioning. We tend to just accept that good art is expensive, but Gonzalez-Torres makes us aware that this is not always the case.
Cattelan too questions the idea of an original work of art when he made an exact copy of his friend's exhibition and displayed it in the gallery next door. By chance, visitors could see either show first and would class the first one seen as the original work. Also, he said, 'I always make three of every work... I don't feel the need to deal in one-offs. I love the idea of the same piece being in New York, Australia, Europe and Japan at the same time' (di Pietrantonio, 2000, p.113).
The idea of context defining meaning is valid in some of Gonzalez-Torres'. The paperstacks and candy spills come with specification sheets with ideal heights and weights. The materials used are highly accessible but also flexible, and this emphasises the element of choice the curator of his exhibitions has—the curator is another person who can make a decision to affect the work and how it is viewed. For example, "Untitled (Rossmore II)" was exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery as a pile, but at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum it was a long, thin rectangle. These are decisions that can affect the viewer's interpretation of the work. As the context of the work changes, so too can the form. Gonzalez-Torres encouraged the repositioning of his work, and as such the Serpentine Gallery presented "Untitled", 1991 at twelve different sites around London. The work is an image of two indentations, and is presented the size of a billboard. These various contexts shape how we read the image, whether we are seeing it above another billboard about diabetes, or in an Underground station.
Gonzalez-Torres has most definitely succeeded in making art that asks questions and forces us to think. His biggest accomplishment is not making a specific piece of art, but making a whole body of work that can continue to be remade, bringing new interpretations and meanings to the viewer, even after his death. The interactivity of his work helps to engage the viewer and actually makes art enjoyable as well.
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GONZALEZ-TORRES, Felix. 1991. Untitled. [Photograph]. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
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GONZALEZ-TORRES, Felix. 1991. Untitled (Rossmore II). [Installation]. Private collection.
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