BY Joseph R. Wolin in Reviews | 14 JUL 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Felix Gonzalez-Torres In My Corner

A pop-up DIY exhibition across 400 homes became an unexpectedly timely evocation of resilience and loss

BY Joseph R. Wolin in Reviews | 14 JUL 20

As I tipped the cardboard carton of fortune cookies out onto the floor of my living room, I watched the treats alchemically transmute into a piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I had installed works by the artist in the past, including his strings of light bulbs, but those had arrived already as artworks, crated and custom-made. Here, the standard-issue cookies I had ordered on Amazon a couple of weeks previously became a Gonzalez-Torres as if by magic.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, installation view, Havana. Courtesy: Jorge Fernández Torres

The manifestation of the artist’s “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) (1990) in my New York apartment was orchestrated by Andrea Rosen, the chief steward and champion of his legacy since his untimely death from AIDS-related causes in 1996. In collaboration with David Zwirner, Rosen borrowed the work from a private collector and invited 1,000 people in various parts of the world – some 400 have participated – to present it simultaneously, each version constituting a ‘place’ in the total ‘site’ of the exhibition. The awkward terminology underscores the ontological challenges continuously posed by the artist: under what circumstances does the readymade object become art, and when are the qualities of art extrinsic to it? Rosen's loan cannot explain how my pile of cookies becomes a work of art for a time before suddenly reverting to its original state – a metaphysical change as sacral and fleeting as transubstantiation.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, installation view, Silver Lake, Garage of a Friend's home, Los Angeles. Courtesy and photograph: Russell Salmon

With museums and galleries shuttered, the exhibition brought a work by Gonzalez-Torres into hundreds of homes and other spaces. (If we can’t go to the mountain, the mountain will come to us.) Atomized in a way the artist probably had not imagined, the work seems to have created a sense of solidarity in an alienating moment by virtue of the care required to realize and maintain its installation. Social-media posts made that community visible across a range of settings, from my shoddy linoleum to far tonier domestic interiors. Some participants lectured about the work on Zoom or mailed cookies to each other. Others installed the work in public spaces, including building lobbies, a busy transportation hub in Shanghai and even outdoors, enabling passersby to take and eat.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, installation view, London. Courtesy and photograph: Hettie Judah

The six-week run of the exhibition began on 25 May, the day George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. As the news of his death and the resulting protests spread, an already troubled country convulsed with anger, and the tenor of “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) changed along with that of the nation. What originally seemed a balm for the distancing of COVID-19 lockdowns began to appear significantly more equivocal. The analogy of Gonzalez-Torres’s diminishing stacks of paper, masses of comestibles and strings of lights to bodies and communities ravaged by disease and malign governmental neglect seems more relevant during the current pandemic than at any time since the worst years of the AIDS crisis, when the artist first conceived these works. The installation guidelines called for eaten cookies to be replaced midway through the exhibition; the gradual disappearance and then resurrection of the piles trigger broader considerations of fragility, complicity and resilience.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, installation view, Plant Shop, Lisbon. Courtesy: Luiza Teixeira de Freitas

In contrast to works such as “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), in which Gonzalez-Torres piled sweets, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) possesses an additional, almost Cagean aspect: the randomly selected fortunes themselves. Some of the enigmatic missives in my Golden Bowl cookies seem oracular, such as this favourite: ‘Think of what you will think of ten years from now.’ Gonzalez-Torres’s work always entered into a pact with the future. His mundane, readily reproducible materials simultaneously provoke subjective experience and historical memory: the pleasurable sensation of eating a sweet paradoxically prompting associations with loss and grief past and present. In ten years, I’ll be thinking of this.

Main Image: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, installation view, Sonia Becce with Gabriel Chaile, facilitator Community Kitchen Nuestro Hogar, Buenos Aires

Joseph R. Wolin is a curator and critic based in New York, USA.