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Felix Gonzalez-Torres: ‘This Place’, The MAC, Belfast, Art Monthly, Issue 392, December 2015

January 29, 2016

Since Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ untimely death of AIDS-related illness in 1996, much has been written about his artistic legacy. Interpreted through numerous critical lenses – not least Queer Theory, Minimalism and Relational Aesthetics – his artworks are rooted in identity politics of 1980’s and early ‘90’s America.  However, as demonstrated in this inaugural staging of the artist’s work in Belfast, the existing discourse surrounding his canonical works is neither exhaustive nor impervious to fresh interpretations.

Assiduously curated by Eoin Dara, ‘This Place’ presents significant artworks from 1987 – 1993, whose enduring themes of belonging, love and loss resonate earnestly in the Northern Irish context. Several of Gonzalez-Torres’ iconic ‘removable’ installations feature in the exhibition, including two cognate ‘candy-spill’ works Untitled (Lover Boys), 1991, which are installed on separate floors of The MAC. In a corner of the Sunken Gallery, a shallow mound of silver, foil-wrapped sweets shimmers like forgotten treasure. Meanwhile, along a wall in the Tall Gallery, white and blue swirled candies, individually wrapped in clear cellophane, form a narrow carpet, fraying at the edges where confectionary is displaced. Originally developed as a self portrait of the artist and his partner Ross Laycock, with an ‘ideal weight’ of 355lbs, the glistening mass is set to diminish over time or vanish completely, as viewers ‘take only one’. Themes of tactility and dispersal persist with Untitled, 1989/1990, where hundreds of pages are stacked to form two solid cubes. Printed on the pages are the antithetical statements: “Somewhere better than this place” and “Nowhere better than this place”.  In the context of the ongoing European refugee crisis, notions of displacement, migration and statelessness are inevitably invoked, prompting reflection on the uneasy relationship between ‘homeland’ and a ‘safe place’. Lesser-known works, such as his c-print jigsaws, also feature. Sealed in plastic envelopes and intermittently obscured by pixilation, these fractured images convey a range of existential, intimate and voyeuristic perspectives on life. Multiple iterations of Untitled (Loverboy), 1989, hang like translucent shrouds across the gallery’s windows, diffusing natural light and veiling the city beyond. Across three consecutive open windows, breathing curtains levitate in the breeze. Fabricated in light blue – channelling Gonzalez-Torres’ belief that this is the colour of “a beautiful memory” – the drapes posit the gallery as a theatrical space, where artworks perform.   Responding to the building’s interior architecture, the weighty beaded curtain Untitled (Chemo), 1991, forms a threshold at the entrance to the Upper Gallery.  Rivulets of metallic, pearly and translucent beads hang in strands, providing a tactile experience for viewers as they pass into an expansive room where Untitled (For Jeff), 1992, occupies a large wall. In an exhibition memorialising absent bodies, the towering open hand depicted in the monochromatic image feels soothingly present.  Absences persist however, as the artwork signifies activity beyond the gallery, in reproductions across 24 billboards throughout the city.  In many locations, existing graffiti, political murals or English/Gaeilge street signage surround these billboards, attesting to enduring social divides within Belfast’s neighbourhoods. Particularly loaded billboard sites include the Nationalist Lower Ormeau enclave, where a cartoonish Republican mural depicts a menacing Orange Order member brandishing a ‘Drumcree’ baseball bat. In Ardenvohr Street, a Loyalist mural remembers the forefathers of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Above the seemingly anachronistic ‘Red Hand of Ulster’, Gonzalez-Torres’ outstretched hands read as totemic symbols and pacifying gestures, conjuring something Paul O’Neill describes as a ‘heterotopic space’.  Northern Ireland’s polarised histories find further resonance in the gallery setting, where four monochromatic panels, Forbidden Colours, 1988, instantly convey the Palestinian flag – a colour combination banned by the Israeli army until 1993 – yet resonate prominently within Belfast’s changing visual landscape, once highly tribalised with rivalling national flags and painted kerbstones. Binary presentation formats – including the dual mirrors of Untitled (Orpheus, twice), 1991 – channel both enemies and lovers in the same easy breath. In this post-conflict setting, entrenched duality simultaneously speaks of division and coexistence, with issues such as civil marriage equality fundamentally exposing the fault-lines of this ‘power-sharing’ model. Untitled (Arena), 1993, comprises a string of porcelain socket light bulbs loosely configured on the ceiling like electric bunting, to form a ‘zone of light’.  Two sets of wireless headphones hang on the wall, playing a looped song. Providing the ideal conditions for romance, tandem listeners are invited to step into the artist’s world, and dance under the lights to music only they can hear.  As outlined in the artwork’s installation guidelines, the curator can select any waltz or music with 3/4 tempo.  Written in 1993, Mazzy Star’s melancholic love song ‘Fade Into You’ provides an ethereal soundtrack for this deeply tender work. Like the billboard locations, this song-choice constitutes a risky but effective leap of faith by the curator. Cracking the archival veneer, the exhibition is elevated to something much more than meticulously installed works from a collection: it becomes active and laden with meaning in contemporary Belfast.

 

Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in the west of Ireland.

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