Colin Dickey | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,573 words)
I remember my first encounter with the work of Félix González-Torres, even though most of the details are fuzzy. I don’t remember which museum we were at, nor which piece, exactly, it was. I don’t remember the year, though it was sometimes in the early 2000s. Sometimes the way memory works is through a very tight precision that exists in a sea of imprecision.
It was one of his many takeaway pieces, one of the stacks of paper — a heavy stack of large, poster-size paper, each printed with the same image — and the public was invited to take a sheet. I remember Nicole explaining to me how the weight of the stack of paper was the same as González-Torres’s lover, and slowly, one by one, the stack would be diminished by visitors taking sheets away one at a time. González-Torres’s lover, who had died of AIDS, as would, eventually, González-Torres himself. The stack would wither and diminish but it could be replenished by the museum’s curators. Nicole took one of the prints — I can’t remember what was on it, which image or block of text — and we moved on.
The weight is the important part — the idea of a body. Félix González-Torres made work about the physical space of a body, and how that body could change and wither by disease, or how it could be reconstituted in different ways. So many of González-Torres’s works involve subtraction. Perhaps most famously were his mountains of candy — often the exact weight of his lover Ross Laycock, or the weight of González-Torres and Laycock together — where viewers would be invited to take a piece of candy and eat it, this small thing that made up the weight of the body of González-Torres’s dead lover becoming part of the bodies of the audience.
The stacks get replenished, the candies get replenished. Unlike actual dying bodies that waste away and never come back, in González-Torres’s work there is a constant, if false, sense of renewal and regeneration. Meanwhile the thing you take away, that stays with you. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the physicality of this thing, Nicole rolling it up into a cylinder, cradling it so it wouldn’t get bent or damaged, taking it back home with us to our apartment, this object that now was with us. I remember the weight of something so small, a piece of paper, that could accumulate in a pile to equal the weight of someone. How bodies are heavy but they can waste away, a little at a time, losing weight in increments no bigger than a piece of paper. I remember us carrying home that piece of paper, and I remember thinking about everyone else throughout the city carrying their own prints from that same stack, how we were carrying this ideal weight of Ross Laycock through the city as we went about our lives.
In the wake of death, the beloved becomes the only addressee, the only public.
Today, you can buy prints from González-Torres’s takeaway pieces on eBay: things that people once picked up for free are now listed for $80, $250, $8,000, even $12,000. Because anything offered in a spirit of generosity or in a spirit of grief will always be eventually converted into capital. That print that Nicole picked up out of a pile almost two decades ago might now, I realize, be “worth something,” with all the contradictory implications of that phrase.
At some point, though, Nicole got rid of the print, because we never got around to hanging it on the wall, or maybe we just didn’t have space. Every so often you have to go through your clutter and throw out the stuff that doesn’t matter, stuff you don’t have space for anymore. You can always get another print at another museum exhibit, after all. Or maybe Nicole didn’t throw it out, maybe it’s still rolled up in cylinder somewhere, locked away in storage, as good as forgotten. Who’s to say? Where are all these pieces of our past, bits of shiny and beautiful and temporary and fragile things, where are they now, these dead, inert, lifeless things that are also the fragments of the loved ones we’ve lost?
I am thinking about all this now, again, in the wake of reading T Fleischmann’s book, Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through: An Essay. It is a memoir of sorts, but it is also an engagement with González-Torres’s work, which emerges as a vein that runs through the body of the book. It exists in a continuum of books like Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds, or Robert Glück’s Margery Kempe, books that navigate using a constellation of objects of desire or longing, a constellation that they keep returning to from different points of access. Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through follows, vaguely, two relationships, and — just as Glück uses Margery Kempe’s religious devotion as a lens for his own desire and experience — Fleischmann’s memoir-ish passages are counterpointed by lyric passages about González-Torres, whose work acts like a refrain, an anchor, a motif, and a point of departure.
That being said, Fleischmann recently told Mattilda Sycamore in Bomb, “If you’re reading my book to learn about Gonzalez-Torres, for example, you’ll probably be disappointed. I want to engage with his work, and a number of other topics, without necessarily suggesting that I have something definitive to say about them, pushing against some forms of knowledge.” So that’s maybe important to say up front, that this not a book of scholarship, or a book with an argument per se. As its title indicates, Fleischmann’s book is about bodies moving through time — how they crash into each other, how they fuck, how they move apart, how they lie still next to each other, sleeping.
The opening image is undeniable: Fleischmann on a bus from Buffalo, New York, checking the dating app Scruff, “where the hills and plateaus offer just blips of men. Most of them are stationary, so the bus’s crawl puts them at steadily increasing or decreasing proximities, of two hundred miles and then one hundred and eight, of one hundred and eighty and then one hundred and sixty, of eighty and then ninety. One guy seems to travel a similar path, a similar speed, either following me or preceding me, thirty-one miles away, thirty, thirty-one.” It is an image that defines the movement of the book, the way bodies get close, then far apart, then disappear, to be replaced by other bodies that likewise come and go. One thinks of E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” There can be no you, no me, not given the impermanence of our bodies. The only thing immortal is connection itself.
Early on, Fleischmann offers an aesthetic manifesto of sorts for the work to come, writing “I’ve been getting bored of metaphors anyway. I’ve decided that I don’t like them because one thing is never another thing, and it is a lie to say something is anything but itself; it’s ontologically and physically impossible in fact, not even apple and apple can be each other.” This rejection of figurative language runs through the entire book, creating a language that’s pure, precise, and stubbornly insistent. Things exist as they are, rather than being over-dressed by ersatz artistry. Which is not to say that their sentences are not striking in their poetry: “At the orgy I touch my hair, I go and pee, I feel a nipple hard against my own. My inclination is to say something about a door here, a metaphor of a door, but instead I’ll say that when I lick Jackson’s thigh his sweat tastes like Jackson’s sweat.”
This prose stands in contrast to González-Torres’s work, much of which was deliberately, explicitly metaphorical: candies for bodies, lights for bodies, prints for bodies. Anything and everything except the body itself, the body of Ross Laycock, whose body is gone. Fleischmann’s working method circles González-Torres’s like a double helix, two very different means of navigating loss and longing.
For González-Torres, loss and longing began and ended with Ross, who was not only the subject of much of his work, but also, he explained in interviews, its audience. “I think at times my only public has been my boyfriend, Ross,” he told Robert Nickas in 1991, the year Laycock died. Four years later, he reiterated this to another interviewer, Ross Bleckner, who asked, “So are you in love now?” González-Torres responded, “I never stopped loving Ross. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean I stopped loving him.” When Bleckner suggested that “life moves on, doesn’t it, Felix?,” González-Torres asked him what he meant. “It means that you get up today and you try to deal with the things that are on your mind.” To which González-Torres responded, finally, “That’s not life, that’s routine.”
To insist on the universality of grief, after all, is to insist it has no politics.
On its face, this reaction seems natural enough. In the wake of death, the beloved becomes the only addressee, the only public. All that matters is the person you can’t reach, the person who can’t respond. You who are reading this, you who have also lost someone, you, too, are thinking only of that person you lost, and as long as you are under the siren spell of grief, that is the only person you’ll ever speak to.
It’s why every culture has its own prohibitions to keep the dead from coming back, to keep ghosts at bay, to keep revenants in the ground. Rest in Peace is not just a wish for the dearly departed, it’s also a command: Please don’t come back. Behind this superstition is a desperate desire to be allowed to move on, to be allowed to finally let go.
But Félix González-Torres didn’t let go. He never let go. He followed Ross.
The utterly insular, hermetic nature of González-Torres’s work makes it both urgent and disorienting, like happening upon a stranger sobbing and lost in their own grief. As Fleischmann writes,
The spare nature of Gonzalez-Torres’s art is not just an opportunity to face the power of our own imaginations,
to extrapolate what we will from the taste of a candy,
but also an occasion to honor that part of the artist’s life that
I’ll never know.
He makes something of his desires, but that does not grant us
any right to those desires,
only to the specific thing he has shared with us.
You can’t touch the dancer.
Why did you think you could?
Who told you that you have that right?
Just love people for who they are, and for all the things they’ve
chosen to keep away from you.
González-Torres’s work, like grief, is that which is insistently public at the same time that it’s intensely private. It invites association, empathy, connection, while violently refusing all these things at once. Yes, you too have lost someone, but how you dare you compare that loss to mine?
This dual motion, of being welcomed in and pushed away, runs through much of González-Torres’s pieces. In Untitled (Perfect Lovers), a pair of identical battery-operated wall clocks are mounted next to each other. Though they start out synchronized, inevitably one battery will run down at a different speed than the other, and the clocks will slowly fall out of sync. Eventually, one clock will die even as the other continues to tick on.
More and more I’ve come to see this piece as emblematic of the way grief works: there are two clocks, the one which is the time of the regular world, and the one that is the time of your grief, and they are not in sync, and even as one slows down, the other keeps on, mechanically, unstoppable. Even as you want to bring everything to a halt, this other clock does not stop.
So I identify with González-Torres’s clocks. I feel a kinship. But this is dangerous, because this art is not only about grief, nor it is not about just anyone’s grief. When Ross Laycock died in 1991, he was one of some 130,000 Americans who had died from AIDS, many of whose deaths might have prevented if not for the criminal negligence of the government. It’s dangerous to denude González-Torres’s work of its context: the AIDS epidemic and the deaths not just of anyone, but of gay and queer and trans people in particular. One can be deep in mourning and still understand that González-Torres’s depictions of death are not for you. To insist on the universality of grief, after all, is to insist it has no politics.
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Death is at once an intensely personal, private thing that belongs only to the dying and those that love them and a public event. The deaths of the people in Fleischmann’s life, “more and more every year, always,” are, they write, “not singular, but the toll of capitalism and hate, which accrues.” Even a death of old age, of natural causes, one that does not involve massive health insurance bills that can’t be paid, a death that does not come at the hands of racist cops, a death that doesn’t happen in an ICE detention center — these deaths, too, are political, because they only exist only for a certain subset of us. The so-called Good Death is a privileged death.
Death is the moment when our relationship to power is finalized.
González-Torres’s insistence that his work was only for Ross Laycock is a means of reclaiming the politics of Laycock’s death and González-Torres’s own work. This work is not for you, because loss is not universal, no matter how much grief may try to trick you into thinking that death is the great equalizer.
It’s a difficult lesson to heed, even for those who knew González-Torres and remain supporters of his work. In a 2010 article for Representations, Adair Rounthwaite traced the steady depoliticization of González-Torres’s art as his posthumous fame continued to grow. The focus of Rounthwaite’s essay was the Venice Bienniale of 2007, where the American Pavilion was devoted to González-Torres, a feat that came about through the work of curator Nancy Spector, who worked with González-Torres during his lifetime, and who put together the proposal for the show, Felix González-Torres: America. In her proposal, Spector de-sexed and de-queered González-Torres’s work, presenting him instead as a defender of “the integrity of our democratic system,” an artist whose works “defy simple categorization.” As Rounthwaite suggests, the State Department ultimately chose González-Torres because he was “widely recognized as a politically correct choice, whose place as an influencer of younger generations and as a politically engaged artist is already secured, but whose art is framed as totally flexible in its meaning, and whose biography is reduced to a narrative trajectory that falls reassuringly within homophobic cultural narratives about gay men and AIDS.”
The clocks of Untitled (Perfect Lovers) are also keeping time for political death, for political grief. “The AIDS epidemic is over” is a thing you hear people say; they mean that it is no longer a political concern, it is not a thing that merits discussing or mainstream activism. (“At this point,” González-Torres said in 1991, “to recall history seems impolite.”) After a while, the clock that marks the urgency of a death runs down, and the specifics of that person’s relationship to power is lost. What’s left is the other clock, which originally bore only half the meaning: a canonical artist, a figure whose death has been stripped of context, ticking on and on.
Given enough time, any ghost can be depoliticized.
Compare this to Fleischmann’s use of the concrete, of language devoid of metaphor, and the insistently physical nature of their descriptions. There is no misreading of figurative language or rhetorical artifice in Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through because, by and large, Fleischmann avoids such techniques. The problem with metaphor is that it’s imprecise, and it’s subject to manipulation and misuse. Many of González-Torres’s works can be made a metaphor for freedom, or self-reliance, or democracy with the right kind of blinders on. Fleischmann’s words resist the seduction of metaphor. Jackson’s sweat is not a door of any kind.
For Fleischmann, existence is political; simply being a body is a form of resistance. “The police state wants me dead to make sure their children don’t end up like me, so I guess every time I fuck and I’m happy and I do what I want I would like to call that an anti-state action. The people I love alive — yes, we weaken the state.” It is both enough by itself and also not enough: “But also every time after I have felt pleasure and played pool with a bunch of transsexuals and smoked weed and then eaten a taco and gone home, when my body is at its best, then I need to set myself to contributing to the coalition, which is already underway, which has kept me alive, the work of liberation being one of the ceaseless things.”
Jackson’s sweat is not a door of any kind.
It is this spirit of generosity that makes Fleischmann’s book so luminous — a generosity towards the queer body and its existence, a generosity towards the work of activism, a recognition both of the work that needs to be done and the work that is being done. A generosity towards language, the generosity borne of reciprocation:
When Gonzalez-Torres speaks of infecting power, he speaks of power spreading.
An individual viewing his art can be transformed, having been implicated and involved in it,
taking home a sheet of paper, tasting sugar, feeling.
A person in the world who has been affected by the pain of another is an agent of change.
A person in the world who has been affected by the joy of another is an agent of change.
A person in the world is an agent of change.
Throughout Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through, longing, absence and grief are counterpointed by moments of ecstasy and joy. In an amazing moment, Fleischmann collaborates with the artist Benjy Russell on a project, involving a mirror set on a card table in Russell’s yard: “The mirror shows sky, and beside it we set a ladder and his photography equipment.” Then, the pills: “We dump all our prescription drugs onto the reflective surface, bottle after bottle. The pills are tan, light yellow, two shades of blue, one of red, a pale pink, and a paler pink with a purple hue. When they are all mixed together they look like pills, generically, unlike when they are in the bottles and seem direct references to our survival.” In the context of their individual pill bottles, this medicine has economic value and signification, but poured into a pile, the individual pills take on a new meaning. “We are here to shape the pills into letters,” Fleischmann continues, “which takes time, and so we chat all morning about them. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of medication, they are the most expensive material we have used to make an image.”
Chatting and moving at a slow pace, punctuated by digressions that, the two decide, “are the most important part of our process,” eventually a word emerges. “Benjy and I use maybe one hundred pills. Post-Scarcity, they spell out. The word is multihued and large…. The image shows only pills and sky, and it appears as though the word is floating above us. Post-Scarcity, it says, composed of more than one body like all bodies are.” Formed by an insanely expensive cocktail of drugs, the words, reflected against the clouds above, suggest that it might be possible to take the raw materials of this world, currently contextualized around capital and accumulation, and pour them out and re-arrange them into something more liberating. It’s a fleeting moment — the pills, after all, have to be collected and re-sorted, with Fleischmann commenting that categorization “isn’t how we acknowledge difference, but rather its enforcement, difference leveraged to keep things apart that could well be together.” But still, even fleeting, it’s one of many moments in Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through that suggests some other world, some other reality that might be possible.
In one of Gonzalez-Torres’s works, Untitled (Go-go Dancing Platform), a platform for a dancer is set up in the gallery, a small plinth ringed with lights, and once a day a dancer arrives, unannounced, wearing silver lamé shorts, to dance for five minutes to music of their own choosing, wearing headphones so only the dancer can hear the music. A private dance that is not for the audience.
After five minutes, the dancer leaves. You never know when the dancer will arrive; part of the piece is not knowing. Which means that most of the time you’re in the gallery you’re waiting, consciously or not, for the dancer to arrive. You hope to arrive at the museum in time, and you hope not have to wait too long. Without the dancer, it doesn’t feel like a full work — it’s just a platform, a space for a body that’s absent. So you stand there, waiting, in an empty room.
And then after a while you realize that this is all wrong, the way you’ve been thinking about things. The room isn’t empty. You start to realize that the piece is also about you, about how you inhabit the space — and that yours is the body you’ve been waiting for.
* * *
Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, along with two other books of nonfiction. He is currently writing a book on conspiracy theories and other delusions, The Unidentified, forthcoming in 2020.
Editor: Dana Snitzky