"At this point in history, how can we talk about private events? Or private moments? When we have television and phones inside our homes, when our bodies have been legislated by the state?"
— Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1993
The SCAD Museum of Art presents an exhibition of works by the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. This collection forms a concise dialogue centered on the artist’s exploration of the fragile boundaries between public and private domains and his use of abstraction as a vehicle for political critique. While these artworks speak to the context of their creation and the crisis of individual rights, censorship and access to health care, the topics addressed in this selection of work remain unresolved and relevant.
The bridging of public and private life is especially apparent in Gonzalez-Torres' 'billboard' works of photographs and text installed in public, outdoor locations. His billboard "Untitled" (1992) is central to this exhibition. The large-scale photographic image, depicting a figure standing behind gauzy window curtains, is installed in the gallery and moves throughout Savannah on the side of university buses. The buses circulate 24 hours a day, shuttling students from residence halls to classrooms and other university buildings and back on numerous routes. This first manifestation of the artist’s billboards on buses allows for Gonzalez-Torres’ work to permeate the city.
Gonzalez-Torres once said, "Aesthetics are not about politics; they are politics themselves. And this is how the 'political' can be best utilized since it appears so 'natural.' The most successful of all political moves are ones that don’t appear to be political." This line of thinking is evident in the stacked paper work "Untitled" (Republican Years) (1992), in which Gonzalez-Torres adopts the abstraction of minimalism, employing it in what can be interpreted as a critique of the U.S. government’s ineffectiveness in the face of the AIDS epidemic, while also evading potential censorship for addressing themes of homosexuality. Viewers can choose to remove a sheet of paper from the work, thus lessening its materiality with each person who partakes. The exhibitor may choose to replenish the sheets or let them diminish over the course of the exhibition, adding a further potential dimension of how the work’s public existence can change with each exhibition.
Visitors can also interact with Gonzalez-Torres' installation, "Untitled" (Placebo) (1991), a field of individually wrapped hard candies placed directly on the gallery floor for viewers to take and consume. Placebos are used in medical drug trials, but the Latin root of the word "placebo" is related to the words "pleasure" and "placate." Gonzalez-Torres entangles his work with all of these associations by creating a situation in which others have the opportunity to ingest his artwork and, in so doing, simultaneously defy cultural perceptions of the steadfast nature of artwork and typical behavior in relation to a work of art.
As the creator of touchable, consumable, mutable and endlessly replicable artworks, Gonzalez-Torres undermined commonly held ideologies; those separating public and private, notions of the permanence of art objects, the delineations of art and lived experiences, as well as our actions and our bodies.