Queer temporalities in the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Photo of a museum visitor interacting with untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) by Félix González-Torres photo credit Molly Robert via Smithsonian Mag
Last month, curators Jonathan D Katz and David Ward spoke at the New York public library (as part of their “LGBT initiative”) on their involvement with Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery. Something that struck me about the talk was an awareness of the issues examined within a continuum of art historical practice and representation. I’m referring specifically to the curatorial decisions in Hide/Seek, though this extends to conversations of censorship as well: the comparisons with the late 80s culture wars are as disheartening as they are pervasive. If we talk big picture, the purpose of Hide/Seek is to reassess the canonization of modern art through the excavation of biographies effaced through institutional homophobia. The historiography of art is interrogated (theoretically), and a determination to minimize the impact of openly queer artists is brought to light. The exhibition itself is presented chronologically to highlight individual moments in art history where artworks were misread or hidden due to institutional prejudice.
So why this queer fascination with time? In her collection of essays In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, author Jack Halberstam speaks to the relationship between duration, history, and sexuality. Halberstam writes, “Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logistics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience- namely, birth, marriage, reproduction and death.” The author goes on to delineate contemporary notions of “respectability” which refer to the well-adjusted adult, partnered in quarter-life, with children (or at the very least with the capacity to rear them), and the apprehension of an 80-year lifespan. These characteristics are not applicable to the life of a postmodern American queer who, likely, has no interest in partnering by quarter-life, with limitations on her capacity to do so as gay marriage remains illegal in most states. Though the potential to mimic the culture of the modern heteronormative family is becoming increasingly possible through advancements in reproductive technology, many gays choose to continue to mature outside of this paradigm.
It’s scary to think that heteronormativity has influenced even our perceptions of temporality. Is it possible that this biased notion of time has infected the historiography of art as we know it? Consider, for a moment, the “lifespan” of modern art, all the way through to contemporary practice. The threads established through formal and social analysis suggest a continuity that is dubious at best. The chronicling of this trajectory has continued to mimic this paradigm of heteronormativity- lengthy career, institutional acceptance- without allowing for deviations that undermine the significance of its milestones.
Félix González-Torres Untitled (A Corner of Baci), 1990 via MoCA
With this paradigm so deeply ingrained into the historiography of art, the analysis of artworks that keep in mind the weight of queer time are all but absent from the art historical record. This brings us to the art of Félix González-Torres, an artist exhibited in Hide/Seek who has been critically revered both for his thoughtful commentaries on minimalism’s relationship to masculinity and his poignant meditations on the life and early death of his lover, Ross Laycock. Both Laycock and González-Torres died of AIDS; the artist’s gay identity was never kept secret and much of his work is considered a commentary on the fragility of life and the duration over which the body disappears.
Robert Smithson Mirror and Crushed Shells, 1969 via the Tate
González-Torres’ Piles formally reference Robert Smithson’s Nonsites, both works activated through viewer participation. In the case of Smithson’s dirt sculptures, the presence of mirrors surrounding each work draws a relationship between the erosion of the earth and that of the spectator- a sort of commentary on nature, culture and the cycle of life. In the case of FGT’s piles, however, viewers are invited to remove pieces of cellophane wrapped candy from a pile designed to signify the body of Ross Laycock. By encouraging viewers to actively destroy the work, he separates the degradation of Ross’s body from natural phenomenon. Rather, the work acknowledges the social construction of the body as it relates to the HIV virus. In the 1980s, a heteronormative society actively created the pathos of the suffering gay victim and González-Torres’s work does not allow for this image to be dissociated from its construction.
Interestingly, a series of works read most often as simply romantic have a sinister subtext, a sort of duplicitous political motivation. By participating in the performance of FGT’s piles, the viewer effectively affirms to her role in the social construction of the disease. This analysis of the work within the context of queer time is absent from the artist’s biography, attesting to more than just the deep-rooted heterocentricity of the historiography of art, but to that of temporality itself.