In the spring of 2006, my AP Art History course took a private tour of the collection of Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz. In the weeks leading up to the trip there was little talk of the contemporary work we'd be viewing. Rather, we were reminded of the apparent importance of our visit, the graciousness of our hosts, and the need for us all to be as respectful, thankful, clean, and polite as possible. The De La Cruz home is tucked neatly away on Biscayne Bay. Entering this tiny, secluded heterotopia feels more like crossing the border between the US and Canada, than crossing a bridge off the mainland.
The host presented us with a brief discussion of her curatorial intent (which I don't really remember, of course). We were served rectangular Cuban sandwiches and rich, Spanish coffee. The works in her collection contained a certain minimal, clean aesthetic, conceptually rigorous underpinnings, and oft-political (if not socially engaged) undertones. My sophomoric, untrained eyes were not only affectually moved, but inspired. The conceptual scaffoldings contained there, unraveled by their collector's spirited accounts, have since impacted the methodologies I take up in my own practice (if only I had known at the time! I'd have taken more notes!). In particular, the stunning takeaways of Felix Gonzalez-Torres have outstood the rest. I'd like to unpack the affect that F G-T fosters in his varied and multiple audiences.
In the last room of the house, there are what appear to be two (Ikea) modern tables. Rosa stays silent for some moments as we inspect. Suddenly, it becomes clear that one of these minimal, utilitarian forms bears an inscription, "Nowhere but this place." Ah! The other does also, "Somewhere but this place." When our eyes are focused only a couple feet away, the sides of the rectangular cubes are rendered rough, as stacks of paper. Of course, all of this work's liminality and form provide a crucial point of access across a spectrum of viewers, but the more affectual point of departure in the work is not really contained within the object's form at all, but is inscribed within the biography of the work's maker.
"And finally, above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. "(Rollins interview)
As we all know now, Cuban-born artist F G-T died in 1996 due to complications with AIDS. Aware of these situations long before his death, his work is marked by a fervent desire to participate in a dialogue with his audience. Along with the narratives that accompany his objects, he is able to imbue them with a tremendous depth of meaning and emotive qualities. The words of Rosa de la Cruz rang true for me that day and I never really forgot about Felix (and even as an artist where this kind of thing should be so important, I have a strong knack for keeping names in my short-term memory). So much of his work can be directly related to the issues he struggles with as a gay Hispanic male, but the narrative is conveyed in a simple romantic gesture. His romanticism, and oft-sincere references to loved ones, is supported by its entanglement within political issues relevant to all members of society, namely the approach of death.
This mode of significance is evidence for the viability of Kopytoff's central claim in The Cultural Biography of Things. "Power often asserts itself symbolically precisely by insisting on its right to singularize an object, or a set or class of objects" (Kopytoff 73). In a sense, the work is comprised of a cheap, mundane, ubiquitous, quotidian material - white acid-free paper. What affords these stacks their presence in this context is the position and place of their maker, the narrative of his struggle, and so on. All this excess 'pulls the objects out of their usual commodity sphere' (Kopytoff 74). As was made evident from her account, Rosa de la Cruz was more in love with Felix and his story, than the tangible products of his artistic labour.
Surely the framing mechanisms of the space this work inhabits has a role in its effectivity, but I'd like to search beyond these notions of singularity that serve to undermine the power of this material in its own right. In 'The Gift' Marcel Mauss posits a gift-economy marked by its inherent reciprocal nature. There is an obligation on the part of the receiver to return the debt, and when not afforded there is a shift in the power dynamics of the two parties. Crucially for Mauss, gifts carry with them the identity of the giver and receivers are left with both object and association with that particular biography. It becomes necessary to engage with two critical terms for Mauss' gift-economy, - Hau and Manu.
Concerning the hau, the spirit of things... Tamati Ranaipiri... gives us the key to the problem. What imposes obligation in the present received and exchanged, is the fact that the thing received is not inactive. Even when it has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses something of him. Through it the giver has a hold over the beneficiary... In reality, it is the hau that wishes to return to its birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest and the clan, and to the owner... in Maori law, the legal tie, a tie occurring through things, is one between souls, because the thing itself possesses a soul... Invested with life, often possessing individuality, it seeks to return to its "place of origin", or to produce, on behalf of the clan and the native soil from which it sprang, an equivalent to replace it. (Mauss 11-13)
This work was hung on my wall, as the most prominent of all tsotchkes, because this was a gift I could not return - all
I have left to exchange is the respect I might pay towards the initial gesture. The legacy of his takeaways extends beyond
the walls of the museum or the collector's foyer and into the studios, living rooms, and otherwise domestic spaces of a
myriad of spectators.
Mauss' hau becomes evident here, where there is no direct encounter between gift giver and receiver whatsoever. In fact, there is no potential for such an encounter. Further, it is difficult to trace the direct relationship that the gift might have with its initial maker. The stacks were not, in a sense, 'gifted' to the collectors, but instead purchased. The stacks are not refilled to the artist's 'desired height' by the artist himself, but instead by the agent who engaged in a contractual, commodity-based exchange with the maker. There are a finite number of these stacks in a quantifiable number of display settings, but there is an unending stream of takeaways available. This tension appears at the moment that the casual viewer decides to touch. Formally, the work is in conversation with the minimalist sculptors that preceded him. However, he assumes the formal qualities while inserting a personal narrative into their substrates, into each sheet. He incites a tangible relationship between what was once the 'liminal' art object and the viewing public. In doing so, they defile the sense of aura imbued to museum objects. In doing so, they have to wonder to themselves, "Is this really okay? I am allowed to keep this?"
The work also elicits a decision on the part of the viewer, a decision creating a zone of attachment and therefore responsibility for the output. The reference to 'this place' indexes the situation that the participants are contained within. "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. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility" (Rollins, 23). For myself, at the moment of viewing, I considered whether I wished to be elsewhere, but that consideration was followed by the more ideological implications of the two phrases/positions. The sheet of paper ultimately exists outside, exists elsewhere and will have no reference to the de la Cruz space for future viewers. I had to consider 'this place' on a broader plateau. I had to consider the here and the elsewhere for these reasons, but also precisely because Felix was prompting me to decide. Well, I took both sheets. I took the second when Rosa de la Cruz wasn't looking and seamlessly rolled it up with the first.
What is so poignant, though, is this index towards the desire for an escape of your own position, to be someplace else (somewhere but this place), that is charged with your own mortality and bodily force (nowhere but this place). This faint reminder of our own mortality, supported by the narrative of Felix's death via Rosa de la Cruz et al, is an orientation towards the limits of our own life, and the borders of our own mortality. In Aporias, Derrida describes a situation wherein all effective narratives, or otherwise communications between subjectivities, are necessitated by (and could possibly be reduced to) a recognition of the death of that other, and the death of the self. Aporias, in logic, are paradoxes that cannot be resolved in the text, or in the situation. This is the impact of F G-T's (Untitled); in the present circumstance, there is no way to resolve the question he poses.
When the waiting for each other is related to death, to the borders of death, where we wait for each other knowing a priori, and absolutely undeniably, that, life always being too short, the one is waiting for the other there, for the one and the other never arrive there together, at this rendezvous... and the one who waits for the other there, at this border, is not he who arrives there first or she who gets there first. In order to wait for the other at this meeting place, one must, on the contrary, arrive there late, not early. (Derrida 65-66)
It is the reminder of my own temporality; it is the posed (and ultimately negated) possibility of escape posed
in the inscription on the paper that motivates me to be constantly doing more. more. more with my own practice.
But also, it is Felix. It is his body and his fleshiness that live on in the object. It is the constant reminder
that I can't return the gift. I return the gift by returning to his tasks and working through them as an artist.
In a twist of fate, my father essentially destroyed the sheets accidentally. I know, right? It really shows that it's Felix's narrative that really grants these sheets of paper their weight. I was kicked out of my home for a while and when I came back, a lot of my things had been put in boxes, and the sheets where crumpled and folded up, squeezed to the inside of the box. I was filled with horror at the sight of it, like someone realizing that a neglectful roommate washed out the vase with their mother's ashes to replace them with flowers.
Barnes, Lucinda. "Between Artists: Twelve Contemporary American Artists Interview Twelve Contemporary American Artists. Los Angeles: A.R.T. Press, 1996.
Derrida, Jacques. Aporias: Dying--awaiting (one Another At) the "limits of Truth" (mourir-S'attendre Aux "limites De La Verite"). Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Igor Kopytoff, "The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process," in The Social Lifeof Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 64-91.
Mauss, Marcel, and W D. Halls. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
Rollins, Tim. Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Ed. Francis Colpitt. Originally published by A.R.T. Press, 1993.
Rollins, Tim, Gonzalez-Torres, Felix, Susan Cahan, and Jan Avgikos. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Los Angeles, Calif.: A.R.T. Press, 1993.