Felix Gonzalez-Torres' mournful works find a new context while encouraging public participation in The MAC's posthumous exhibition
Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a time traveller. He’s also a prankster. He is messing with you.
The title – This Place – is both ironic and accurate. True, the art is happening now, here and in this space. But it needn’t be: this place could be anywhere, and it will be somewhere else. As Gonzalez-Torres’ art continues its posthumous journey around the globe it reaches new places, new people, and discovers news contexts.
A string of lights hangs like a health and safety hazard from the ceiling. On the wall hang twin pairs of headphones. They play an unending loop of Mazzy Star’s minor chord melancholy classic 'Fade Into You'. The effect is transformative, the space now cinematic: you’re Cameron Frye staring at an ever more pointless Seurat at The Art Institute of Chicago; you’re racing through the corridors of the Louvre.
You don’t want to dance, because it’s a gallery, because your footsteps echo off the high, white walls, and your laughter echoes through this austere space. But you do anyway. You have to. And you’re meant to. You’re completing the artist’s circuit.
Just as much however participation is never mandatory, Gonzalez-Torres is never didactic – not engaging with the work at all is, in its own way, an equally valid response.
There is a real sense of connectedness and tangibility about the installations currently filling all three galleries at the MAC. Gonzalez-Torres is not precious: he wants you to join in, you can look and touch. Whether it’s the posters you can take away – though you have to choose which of the piles suits you best! – or most affectingly in 'Untitled (Lover Boys)'.
This piece sees an 'ideal weight' of thousands of wrapped sweets on the gallery floor. That weight is 355lbs: the weight of two bodies, that of Gonzales-Torres and his partner Ross Laycock. Here you are cordially invited to help yourself to the sweets (one each – don’t be greedy).
At this point the helpful MAC staffer explains to me the function of the exhibit – the slow piecemeal erosion of the candies represents the gradual erasure of the couple’s bodies to AIDS. Once again you are invited to participate or not participate – the choice is yours, though the transformation of the work feels inevitable: the sweets will ultimately be picked away to nothing.
There is a quiet, elegiac quality to a lot of these pieces, a self-conscious built-in-obsolescence: the strings of lights will ultimately burn out during the shows run. The twin mirrors of 'Untitled (Orpheus, Twice)' will feature the framed faces of another couple now that Felix and Ross are gone. (Gonzales Torres once said that his partner was his public: 'The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.')
With 'Untitled” (For Jeff)'. a large, grainy photo of an open palm dominates the room. But it doesn’t just fill the room; this hand is reaching out into Belfast itself. While the image here is pasted directly onto the gallery wall, billboards of this image are also dotted around the city on twenty four billboards.
They seem gnomic at first, unadorned by description, title or text. They are a muted, quieted image, unexplained. But here, in a city littered with images of red severed hands, the work finds a new context, perhaps one not even imagined by the artist himself. And this is the point – the work lives on, reinventing itself, becoming new.
The hand is recontextualised amongst those forbidding stop-sign hands as a friendly, open palmed gesture. It hides nothing. It is what it is: a gesture of solidarity reaching out of the past, from another culture and another world. It is a way in.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres: This Place runs across The MAC's gallery spaces and at various locations across Belfast city in association with Outburst Queer Arts until January 24 2016.