Excerpts from an Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, by Tim Rollins

orienteering:

TR: So let’s get down to it, how do you determine a work? For example, Lover Boy: How did you decide how big it was going to be? The dimensions of each sheet of paper? What kind of paper to use and how tall the stack would be? How did you decide on which blue to use? How did you know it would go against the wall in that certain way?

FGT: Well, it goes against the wall because the blue reflects on the wall. The paper is a light blue and is a standard commercial brand trimmed to twenty-four by twenty-four inches.

TR: But how did you know that that would work?

FGT: I didn’t, not until I did the installations. When you don’t have a studio you take risks, you change your underwear in public. I’m not afraid of making mistakes, I’m afraid of keeping them. I have destroyed a lot of pieces—I like the excitement of fucking up royally. Some artists can “rehearse” in their studios before they go into the gallery, I find that too easy. I don’t know, I never had anything to lose so I’ve always done it my own way.

TR: All right! there must be some kind of—it might not be a sketch but you must have the measurements written down. You must have taken some piece of paper and cut it the right size and said, “This is the right size.” I know your work isn’t completely arbitrary or intuitive.

FGT: I do like certain uncanny numbers. Things happen to me around certain numbers: five, twenty-four, twelve. Those are the numbers that sometimes determine the height of the stacks and the size of certain papers.

TR: A mystical minimalism?

FGT: Well, yes and no. Some of the stacks are made thirty-two by twenty-nine inches because that’s also the size of the paper. If the piece is about something that is very distant to me, then numbers like seventeen, thirty-five and twenty-one sound perfect because they are numbers that I would never use for anything except for a piece that is very uncomfortable. In terms of the height, it’s really determined by how it looks in the actual space.

TR: I would like to talk about theory…I think it’s about wanting a larger world. I think it’s about wanting to be involved with the world of ideas and it takes a certain amount of courage to really go into that other land. That’s the danger of being too involved in theory, you get to a certain level in your education where you equate theory with practice.

FGT: Tim, I must say that without reading Walter Benjamin, Fanon Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Borges, Mattelart, and others, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to make certain pieces, to arrive at certain positions. Some of their writings and ideas gave me a certain freedom to see. These ideas moved me to a place of pleasure through knowledge and some understanding of the way reality is constructed, of the way the self is formed in culture, of the way language sets traps, and of the cracks in the “master narrative”—those cracks where power can be exercised…Last but not least, Brecht is an influence. I think if I started this list of influences again I would start with Brecht. I think this is really important because as Hispanic artists we’re supposed to be very crazy, colorful—extremely colorful. We are supposed to “feel,” not think. Brecht says to keep a distance to allow the viewer, the public, time to reflect and think. When you get out of the theater you should not have had a catharsis, you should have had a thinking experience. More than anything, break the pleasure of representation, the pleasure of the flawless narrative. This is not life, this is just a theater piece. I like that a lot: This is not life, this is just an artwork. I want you, the viewer, to be intellectually challenged, moved, and informed.

TR: It’s obvious that you aren’t as interested in the battle between form and content as you are in method: how the work is made, distributed, and shared. Where did the stack-pieces come from?


FGT: It’s really difficult to say. I don’t really remember, seriously. The first stacks I made were some of the date-pieces. Around 1989 everyone was fighting for wall space. So the floor space was free, the floor space was marginal. I was also interested in giving back to the viewer, to the public, something that was never really mine to start with—this explosion of information, which in reality is an implosion of meaning. Secondly, when I got into making stacks—which was the show with Andrea [Rosen]—I wanted to do a show that would disappear completely. It had a lot to do with disappearance and learning. It was also about trying to be a threat to the art-marketing system, and also, to be really honest, it was about being generous to a certain extent. I wanted people to have my work. The fact that someone could just come and take my work and carry it with them was very exciting. Freud said that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. In a way this “letting go” of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favor of disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes. It’s really a weird thing when you see the public come into the gallery and walk away with a piece of paper that is “yours.”

It’s a riot when I show these pieces in a museum because people aren’t supposed to touch the art much less take it with them. At the 1991 Whitney Biennial people would ask the museum guard if it was true that they could really take a piece from the stack of paper. The guards got into it. But I had a show once here in a New York gallery and this East Village artist got upset with the work. She just couldn’t take it. I saw here take twenty, twenty-five sheets from the stack and dump them in the corner trash can. That was really upsetting to me.

TR: Love and fear seem to be the two great themes of your work.

FGT: It’s funny you say that because I was just thinking… Earlier I mentioned Hiroshima Mon Amour, it took me a long time to understand the opening sequence. The female character says, “You are good for me because you destroy me,” I finally understand what that means. You can be destroyed because of love and as a result of fear. Love is very peculiar because it gives a reason to live but it’s also a great reason to be afraid, to be extremely afraid, to be terrified of losing that love….I like working with contradictions: making completely private, almost secretive work on the one hand, and on the other, making work that is truly public and accessible. As we know, some so-called public art is really “outdoor art.” Just because it’s on the street doesn’t make it public.

TR: Your work reminds me so much of arte povera—using industrial materials and making arrangements on the floor. On one hand, there’s something free and casual about it. On the other hand, it’s clean, it’s printed, and it was farmed out to industrial shops. The workers who made this stuff have no real connection to what you are doing. You buy, let’s say, a hundred dollars worth of paper, print something simple on it, and sell it for eight thousand dollars as fine art. So you’re involved in that nexus of profit yourself. And even though everyone is invited to take a sheet of paper from the stack there will be a collector who will buy the entire stack and have it in their house where dinner guests are privileged to take sheets. The mechanisms of the market can turn works of art into novelty items. I was curious to know what you thought about that contradiction?

FGT: For me it makes a lot of sense to be part of the market. It would be very expected, very logical and normal and “natural” for me to be in alternative spaces, but it’s more threatening that people like me are operating as part of the market—selling the work, especially when you consider that, yes, this is just a stack of paper that I didn’t even touch. Those contradictions have a lot of meaning, as we know…I’m for pushing the limits. I love it when people say: “But it is just paper. It is just two clocks next to each other. It is just light bulbs hanging.” I love the idea of being an infiltrator. I always said that I wanted to be a spy. I want my artwork to look like something else, non-artistic yet beautifully simple. I don’t want to be the opposition because the opposition always serves a purpose: “Improve your arms against me.” But if you’re the spy—always “straight acting,” always within the system—you are the person that they fear the most because you’re one of them and you become impossible to define.

TR: You are a political person yet you’re very concerned with form and you’re not apologetic about it.

FGT: I love formal issues. Actually they have a very specific meaning. Forms gather meaning from their historical moment. The minimalist exercise of the object being very pure and very clean is only one way to deal with form. Carl Andre said, “My sculptures are masses and their subject is matter.” But after twenty years of feminist discourse and feminist theory we have come to realize that “just looking” is not just looking but that looking is invested with identity: gender, socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation…Looking is invested with lots of other texts.

Minimalist sculptures were never really primary structures, they were structures that were embedded with a multiplicity of meanings. Every time a viewer comes into the room these objects became something else…you realize suddenly and very quickly that aesthetic choices are politics. 

TR: What is the function of duplication and repetition in your work? The stacks of paper or piles of candies that through accumulation comprise a work are internal forms—each individual piece of paper or piece of candy exists as a piece on its own. But they also exist as external forms when you place identical pieces in different sites and contexts.

FGT: All these pieces are indestructible because they can be endlessly duplicated. They will always exist because they don’t really exist or because they don’t have to exist all the time. They are usually fabricated for exhibition purposes and sometimes they are fabricated in different places at the same time. After all there is no original, only one original certificate of authenticity. If I am trying to alter the system of distribution of an idea through an art practice it seems imperative to me to go all the way with a piece and investigate new notions of placement, production, and originality.

In terms of different contexts, well, that’s a very complex issue that needs to be nailed down to a more specific example. As we know, context gives meaning. The language of these pieces depends, to a large degree, on the fact that they get seen and read in art contexts: museums, galleries, art magazines.

TR: Are the works a metaphor for the relation between the individual and the crowd?

FGT: Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between the fear of loss and the joy of loving, of growing, of changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer, I need public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing. I need the public to complete my work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in. I tend to think of myself as a theater director who is trying to convey some ideas by reinterpreting the notion of the division of roles: author, public, and director. Your question is more puzzling to me than I had previously thought because, yes, an individual piece of paper from one of the stacks does not constitute the “piece” itself, but in fact it is a piece. At the same time, the sum of many pieces of the identical paper is the “piece,” but not really because there is no piece only an ideal height of endless copies. As you know, these stacks are made up of endless copies or mass-produced prints. Yet each piece of paper gathers new meaning, to a certain extent, from its final destination, which depends on the person who takes it.

TR: Do you think that has a lot to do with distribution?

FGT: Absolutely. For me it’s very beautiful when the work changes by being placed in different contexts. A page or stack in a gallery reads differently from one you see in an artist’s studio or one you see in a home or museum. I once went to the employees’ toilet in a museum in Germany and found one of my pieces, Death by Gun, pinned to the door of the toilet stall. The employees told me that they loved reading about all those people’s violent deaths while they were sitting. It helped them “go.”

TR: A laxative.

FGT: That’s another function of my work that I hadn’t really ever envisioned, you know!

TR: You’ve had your revenge on Benjamin, in a way, because those individual artworks do have an aura. Benjamin claimed that a reproduction of a work of art could not have the aura of the original, one-of-a-kind piece, but you made a work of art that is an original reproduction.

FGT: I never agreed with that. The reproductions or facsimiles of the original always point toward the source of emission—the “real” thing. And as signposts to the original they become desirable.

TR: Isn’t the stack the original in a way? It’s the book instead of the page?

FGT: It’s always the original because in my case there is no original—the stacks are endlessly reproducible editions.

TR: Engels thought that it was a law that any increase in quantity necessitates a decrease in quality. The great challenge to our generation is to find a work that’s popular and democratic but doesn’t kiss butt, doesn’t pander. It’s a supremely difficult task.

FGT: It’s a very tight rope, and I think one way of going about it is by being flexible and by saying, okay, sometimes I’m going to be democratic…I do have a political and personal agenda with this work, and in a way they are very interrelated but I haven’t been able to find a perfect union for both. So in the meantime I do both things. It feels very satisfying, in a perverse way, to be working on different fronts: not to have a style, not to be easily defined, not to be easily named.

TR: I think the problem with Group Material is that they operated outside of the art market. A lot of people claim that they hate the commercialism of the art galleries, but if you’re not visible in those mainstream venues you’re invisible.

FGT: That’s why I make objects, otherwise I would be doing performances. But aside from the objects, I love the process more than the final product. That’s what I love the most. But I understand the rules of the game: you have to circulate an object in the market in order to have direct access to power…I’ve been waiting for the revolution for a long time and it hasn’t come. The ones that have come have done very little to change our ways. Therefore I don’t want a revolution anymore, it’s too much energy for too little. So I want to work within the system. I want to work within the contradictions of the system and try to create a better place. I think revolutions were a really nice idea in the nineteenth century and in the early part of this century, but we must take into consideration the technological advances that are being made right now. These technological shifts are happening in a world that has become very fragile and also very small.


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Reblog / posted 1 anno fa