So I’ve been pairing photos of beds with photos of water I find online. And I created this + these sets from that. I started just saving photos of beds that I found from simple google image searches (A few of which I’ve posted on here). I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with them, but when I began writing short stories based around the concept of an empty bed (as always, inspired by FGT’s billboard piece (pictured below) and James H Crews’s collection of poems inspired by Torres entitled One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes (read)) I started to draw patterns. As these stories took on multiple, seemingly dichotomous, views of the concept of an empty bed, I became more and more interested in examining Torres’, and others’, use of beds.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1990
It was interesting to see how different (for the most part, unknown/anonymous to me as a result of uncredited image re-posts on the internet) people approached (formally) photographing a bed. And how these photographs either corresponded with or completely differed from Felix’s approach, and how it made no difference whether or not they were even aware of the existence of him or his piece. That is, some people chose to photograph the bed as a whole, from a variety of angles. Others chose to focus on the things that inform the idea there is a rest of the bed, like sheets and pillows. Some standing on the bed, next to the bed, away from the bed looking in. Some beds were colorful, patterned, brightly lit spaces that suggested nothing short of a wild storm had flown through, while others were shot in B&W, high contrast, minimal color/value palette with nicely made beds. And as I looked at these pictures, with as many differing formal aspects to dissect, I started noticing how they all still read the same if you didn’t put as much thought into it as I was. That is, if you asked someone, even a child, “What is this?” the answer would always be (quantifiably) the same: It’s a bed.
That’s one of the things I found so interesting about Torres’ work, that has informed my own studio directive, and that is the seemingly personal becoming genericized and publicly accessible. The image is easy for viewers to read; whether the bed is adopted as a stand-in for the viewer’s own, or whether it is simply viewed as an ideal, what is so seemingly personal as photographing one’s own bed that was previously shared with someone who is no longer there, the unmade quality becomes an index or a metaphor for what had previously been; that is, even though the seeming subject who would have occupied said space is removed from the frame, it is understood that they at once, at least theoretically, were present in the scene. And this scene is understood to be part of a larger, very personal, narrative. Yet, the image and the narrative itself is so open ended and easily read that it allows viewers to design characters, to work out story plots, or even to relate to their own lives and the narratives they have been living or once did live out.
Taking the work out of a institutional setting, where there would surely be a name placard associated with said piece, also further genericizes the image. It’s occupying an advertising space, whose audience is used to having said message be able to relate products and companies to their own life, rather than the art world’s, some of whom regards artisthood as a very singular, personal journey of creating works of self expression wherein their story becomes the point of view that needs to be understood in order to view the work. This understanding of art, the importance of the individual artist, was divisive to Torres, who spent a lot of his time focusing his work on not being labeled “Gay art” and more subverting and infiltrating mainstream art scenes. In other words, Torres preferred to believe that the gay audience and the straight audience was simply an audience. From there he chose to focus on very public and private themes of love, loss, time, renewal, birth, death, light, etcetera. For Torres, nothing was more important than altering the discourse surrounding controversies at the time like AIDS, immigration, etc. There was (and still is) a very US and THEM conversation, and at the time, the THEM part was actively being portrayed as a dangerous plague on society, and that stereotype was used to justify a lack of response towards the AIDS epidemic, because that was viewed as a THEM problem. For many homosexuals, private lives became public and were actively used to discriminate. The media referred to them as “loaded guns”; politicians ignored the epidemic, the police looked the other way as many gay men were beaten, killed and disappearing, housing districts removed them and left many homeless without legal recourse, the job market prevented many from gaining employment, and the medical community actively denied access to any sorts of relief. The HIV/AIDS diagnosis was basically a death sentence, and hundred of thousands of people were literally dying in the streets. So for Torres, it became less about gathering the gay community to protest, and more about dissolving lines between gay and straight by making the labels less significant. For him, it was all about proving that his narrative, about gay love and gay loss, etcetera, was relatable and equatable with one about straight love and straight loss.
Dissolving the lines between artist and viewer allowed for him to also dissolve the lines between one person’s story and another. These combined narratives allow for intercrossings in timelines, which blur the lines between individual lives into a more general, shared, “public life” that becomes lived as one life with many facets.
This act went beyond the participation movement taking place in the art world, and is what informs this project and my practice. I have taken a few personal losses in my life. But the one that has stuck with me the longest has been as a result of an accidental drowning, which inspired the examination of the dichotomous symbolism of water.
For me, conceptually, water takes on a lot of different meanings. Water is associated with life, and death, rebirth, renewal, loss, strength, destruction, peace and tranquility, distance, pliability, etc. And it all depends on what form it’s found in and what context it exists in. Natural bodies of water, like rivers/lakes/streams take on a very picturesque scene typically symbolic of relaxation and adventure. Oceans, depending on which ocean and it’s relationship to the shore, conjure a multitude of symbolism, from peaceful getaways, honeymoons, and torrential conditions. Water in a religious context almost always refers to cleansing and subsequent renewal. For science, it’s a symbol of life, as the body and earth need it to survive, as the body itself is composed of 70%+ water. For environmentalists and social services, it’s a source of controversy and a symbol of access; the supreme goal being equal access that has been denied as a result of political/economic gains. According to my sketchbook “Water is crazy, dude, so weird”, because it’s surface tension enables it to hold up boats, while it’s also able to slip through fingers. It’s a universal solvent. Water can take the shape of whatever container it is put in, but yet rivers have been known to cut paths through mountains. The Water Cycle provides the ultimate symbolism for renewal and resurrection; changing forms from solid to liquid to gas and then starting over again, all through the exchange of energy.
Torres explores the themes of water not only through his continual use of the color blue, but through his tattoo design done for Lawrence Weiner’s show (A dolphin (who symbolize grace, transcendence and resurrection) in a cyclical pattern), his beaded curtains, and his photographed water paper stacks.
Felix Gonzalez Torres: Untitled (Water), 1995
plastic beads, metal rod
dimensions vary with installation
Felix Gonzalez Torres: Untitled, 1991
paper stacks, endless copies
ideal stack dimension 7 x 38.5 x 45.25 inches
The particular paper stack with the water shot can be read in a multitude of ways. A viewer can look at is as a photo taken looking down at the body of water, or a photo taken looking up at the surface of the water, from underneath it. Images of water began to be collected, again from google images, and upon examining them formally, they seemed to resemble the waves made in the bed sheets I had been previously looking at. Conceptually, their dichotomous view points of the function of an empty bed (as both a symbol of loss/love, and also a symbol of liberation depending on your relationship with the subject) and the function of water as both a loss and a renewal was a relationship I was interested in exploring. The most intriguing thing about understanding water is that it didn’t need the viewer’s own experience with loss as a result of water/drowning to be understood as a symbol of loss, much in the way the bed didn’t require the viewer’s actual physical loss to interpret it as such. From there, I began dissecting their formal aspects and pairing up ones that seemed to have compositions that flowed similarly.
The context for the reading of the pairing is entirely left to the viewer to rely on personal memories or those ideal memories gathered from public spheres like advertising, film and television. Utilizing someone else’s work blurs the lines of authorship similar to the way that readymades called into question the impact of the individual artist and his/her role in comparison to the manufacturer’s. The photographic representation of “memory/narrative” (whether own or public adaptation) through these photos highlight’s the function of collective memory and collaboration by causing the viewer to adopt the artist’s storyline as their own or create their own compensated story line, which examines and exposes their own biases and causes them to, regardless of choice, step in as creator to delve into the process of memory and its recollection through the projection of their designed narrative. This project is designed to expose and subsequently debunk the separation between creator and viewer, between self and other, and to reject objective “historical” truth for truth’s interpretations. As Kafka said, “Truth exists, but it has many faces”.