In the early nineties, following the death of his lover from AIDS, and railing against the social inequalities and intolerance of the Reagan/Bush era, Felix Gonzalez-Torres wrote: ‘How is one supposed to keep any hope alive, the romantic impetus of wishing for a better place for as many people as possible, the desire for justice, the desire for meaning, and history?’(i) It is a question that haunts his art, and which remains pressingly relevant as one encounters this major show, installed in all three of The MAC’s gallery spaces.
Famously, Gonzalez-Torres appropriated the aesthetics of minimalism, encoding both personal and radical political content within a restrained formal vocabulary. His ostensibly simple gestures are rich in universal meaning, and abound in metaphors for the diminution of the body and its passage from life into death. The judiciously sparse hang at The MAC heightens one’s sensitivity to the material nature of the work: to its allusions to presence and absence, resilience and fragility. It is an art of light, reflections and shadows, formed of mirrors, festooned strings of light bulbs, curtains of diaphanous gauze or plastic beads; and stacks of posters and so-called ‘spills’ of cellophane-wrapped sweets from which we are each invited to take one home.
The show’s impact is most immediately dramatic in the venue’s largest space, its upper gallery, in which just two pieces are sited. Positioned centrally on the floor are the double white paper stacks of “Untitled” (1989/90); one printed with the phrase “Nowhere better than this place”, the other with “Somewhere better than this place”. The work’s ambivalence invites existential questioning, and invokes a yearning towards a utopian horizon: the ‘better place’ of which Gonzalez-Torres subsequently wrote. Like much else here, this work takes on particular resonances in Belfast, with its tortured history and fractured politics. There is in the city a recent, alarming increase in HIV diagnoses, and expressions of sexual difference remain problematic here. The second work in the upper gallery, pasted in cinematic scale covering its end wall, is the billboard “Untitled” (For Jeff) (1992), with its monumentally enlarged black and white photograph of an outstretched hand. This work extends also into the city itself, where it is scheduled to appear in fortnightly slots on twenty-four billboard sites during the run of the show. On my visit I witnessed it powerfully juxtaposed within feet of a loyalist mural on Newtownards Road.
The themes of Gonzalez-Torres’ work – loss, identity and memory; the cycles of life, consumption and production to which the stacks and spills serve commentary – are recast in each of its settings in time and place: ‘not prescribing definitive meaning…always allowing interpretation to oscillate and shift’, as curator Eoin Dara writes in his exhibition notes. For as the artist knew from Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), a work’s unity is not in its origin but in its destination; and now, almost twenty years after Gonzalez-Torres’ death, we can each bring to this quietly moving show our own narratives, each of them a form of completion.
(i) Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ‘1990: L.A., “The Gold Field”, in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ed. Julie Ault, New York, Steidlangin, 2006, p.150; first published in Earth Grows Thick: Works after Emily Dickenson by Roni Horn; Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, 1996