Thesis Talk

Robert Storr: You recently were placed in context with Joseph Kosuth, and Ad Reinhardt. And I was struck by the fact that instead of trying to separate yourself from previous generations, (…) because on the whole, younger artists generally avoid putting themselves in such close proximity to their predecessors, you joined with Kosuth in establishing an unexpected aesthetic lineage?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: I think more than anything else I’m just an extension of certain practices, minimalism or conceptualism, that I am developing areas I think were not totally dealt with. I don’t like this idea of having to undermine your ancestors, of ridiculing them and making less out of them. I think we’re part of a historical process and I think that this attitude that you have to murder your father in order to start something new is bullshit. We are part of this culture, we don’t come from outer space, so what-ever I do is already something that has entered my brain from some other sources and is then synthesized into something new. I respect my elders and I learn from them. There’s nothing wrong with accepting that. I’m secure enough to accept those influences. I don’t have anxiety about originality, I really don’t.

(Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres[1])

 I was particularly interested in this response in light of the modernist convention of originality and how being preoccupied with that concept and desiring to be viewed as “original” automatically implies a break between those who came before and yourself, rather than an integration, as well as [often times] a desire to be seen as autonomous, rather than culturally motivated. In being a sociology student as well as an art student, I am trained in looking at the influences of culture and it’s impact on a person, while also examining the impact the individual has on culture. By looking at the kind of work Felix Gonzalez-Torres produces, it is easier to understand why he isn’t very anxious about issues like authorship, and that is the same type of work I want to pursue; art as a collaborative relationship. This is, of course, in direct conflict with the abstract expressionist (who were modernists) view of pursuing the authentic mark (this functioned similarly to a signature, but was in reference to the idea that a painting or object is meant to be a revelation of the artist’s authentic identity).

Collaborative relationships, traditionally in art history are between artists, so I decided to study work of artists before me, and a piece of work I was particularly interested in for both its religious and social implications, as well as its blunt honesty, was entitled Ich Habe Angst by Rosemarie Trockel [2]. This phrase, which was placed in vinyl lettering in typical Lawrence Weiner[3] fashion, behind an altar in a church [St. Peter church in Cologne, who had to be restored after heavy bombing], translates into “I have angst”, or “I have fear”. These words, like the book I had previously produced, which chronicled responses to the prompt “I wish I could forget” [4], beg the question to be asked: who is speaking here? Is this the voice of the author/artist, of the viewer, of the church itself [as in the building], of the congregation, of Christians as a whole? Is this the voice of God?

Using a phrase so specific while also being so generic like “I have fear” allows for the interpretation to be completely left up to the viewer of the piece. This allows the work a number of meanings dependent on circumstances; the specific personal meaning of the work is not prescriptive to the piece. What is meant by this is that the words take on a completely different context for each person that encounters the piece and chooses to participate, or even decides not to (their lack of participation can actually say more about the impact and context of words than their participation might, either about the conviction of the words or their role of art in the world).  It comes down to this: how can the particular reader respond to the implicit injunction to internalize this statement; to be fearful? To think on the cause of fear? Some may argue that this is a relatively passive mode of participation and collaboration, since it relies on raising consciousness through the distance of critical thinking rather than physical involvement[5]. However, in line with Jacques Ranciere, acting as interpreters allows for the idea that we are not limited by physical ability, but are equalized in our capabilities of inventing our own translations[6]. This turns into a sharing of experience, a collaborative work, whether it be in the direct or indirect participation (either through the viewing of the signposted letters, taking of a paper, or even simply viewing the paper and declining to take one), rather than simply viewing another’s experience[7], which reflects my previous works and goals for my practice of creating an active subject who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation, using collaboration to produce something more egalitarian and democratic and restore the social bond through a collective elaboration of meaning.

This installation also serves to examine and critique the institution by challenging the way people typically engage art; causing the piece to be rooted in responsive activity rather than emotion, which serves to displace contemplative forms of spectatorship that are associated with modernist aestheticism and the presumption that an artwork should belong to a set of recognizable types of material object, amenable to the relations of private property.[8]

However, there was something else I wanted to examine in my work: faith. Like Torres, I choose objects that can be significant conceptually in the sense that they are resurrectional. Although secular in his approach, Torres stumbled upon some powerful theological undertones when he made a conscious decision to work with materials that would deteriorate over time. For example, his clocks[9] would start off in sync, but would wind down, becoming unsynchronized. This served as a literal representation for the loss of time. His light strings[10] could experience burnt out bulbs. The candy piles and paper stacks[11] could be taken by viewers. The billboards themselves were only temporary, because they were rented and not owned, which made them replaceable.  This seems like a very worldly approach to the object. However, these objects were resurrectional because they can be rejuvenated. The clocks can be re-wound and the batteries replaced. The light bulbs can be replaced. The candy re-weighed to its specified weight. The paper stacks re-stacked. The billboards can be continually re-purchased. The dictations of how his work is to be displayed and the upkeep that he requires is evidence of the theological undertones of his work. He doesn’t assume that people will fix his work if some problem arises; he requires this upkeep to mirror his work conceptually, choosing these items specifically. This dichotomy between death and resurrection is made a lot more fluid through Torres’ work. Physical death no longer signifies an end for Torres, just like it no longer signifies an end for Christians.

For my exhibition, I chose to display pieces made in the tradition of Torres and Trockel, to emphasize the connection between artists then and now, to highlight Torres’ underlying belief in the resurrectional capabilities of art and objects, and to examine the relationship between artist and viewer. Relying on previous works of art not only emphasizes the connection between one artist and another, but also gives the previous artist the ability to be resurrected themselves. Furthermore, re-examining the relationship between artist and viewer to push for collaboration allows for the line between one person and another to be dissolved, building up community and unity through empowering and breaking down the need to be so individualistic. Finally, emphasizing the resurrectional capabilities of art and objects allows for those things to become a surrogate for representing the people viewing those things and their resurrectional potential through faith. There is a triumph in that resurrection, a hope for this temporal man, that I want to emulate in my work.

These paper stacks are then placed on pedestals, an ironic move given a pedestals typical function throughout art history of supporting a piece, while elevating it to an ideal height and granting it superiority;  a position of high regard or adoration that is not typically associated with the “moral deficiency” of having fear. This allows for a tension when interacting with these words that most would be so anxious to deny (similar to the way I had previously chronicled moments in people’s lives in which they had “wanted to forget”).

The installation then is tied up in both faith and art culture, as is my practice, allowing for those who are the outside of either of the communities to have an inside view into them, serving to unite people of multiple backgrounds, while also being able to take something away from the work, about themselves, about God, about art, about others, etcetera, regardless of their prior knowledge or affiliation.


[1]      “Joseph Kosuth & Felix Gonzalez-Torres: A Conversation”. Catalogue for Symptoms of Interferences, Conditions of Possibility. Camden Arts Center, 1994.

[2]     Rosemarie Trockel Ich Habe Angst

[3]     Lawrence Weiner, As Far As the Eye Can See

[4]    I wish I could forget book

[5]     Bishop, Claire. “Chat Rooms”. Participation. MIT Press, Massachusetts; 2006. pg 10.

[6]     Ranciere, Jacques. “The Emancipated Spectator”. Frankfurt, August 2004.

[7]     Paraphrased from Tony Godfrey’s Conceptual Art. London: Phaidon Press, 1998. pg. 398

[8]     Osbourne, Peter. Conceptual Art: Themes and Movements. London: Phaidon Press, 2002. pg 23.

[9]     Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991.

[10]  Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Last Light), 1993

[11]  Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (The End), 1990


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