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Felix Gonzales Torres, Untitled (Placebo – Landscape - for Roni) detail, 1993
Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York - photo: Andre Morain © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Maurizio Cattelan
Felix Gonzales Torres

by Maurizio Cattelan

He’s found a new and fascinating way of imposing the relationship between art and life, public and private, the artist and the audience. He made the public his personal experiences as a homosexual, AIDS sufferer, and Cuban immigrant in the USA. But he did it in a very indirect way using anonymous objects: two identical clocks placed side-by-side, a curtain of plastic beads, heaps of sheets of paper that the public can pick up and carry around. And conversely, how those objects can be loaded with pathos when you come to realize, for example, that the weight of a pile of sweets on the pavement is the equivalent to the weight of a person with a fatal illness. This year, the American Pavilion of the Venice Biennial will be dedicated to Felix Gonzalez- Torres, who died in 1996 at the age of 39. Maurizio Cattelan interviewed him for MOUSSE.

When people asked who was your public, you often replied that it was just one person – Ross. Doesn’t that mean that you weren’t interested in the rest of the public?
No. You know, I’ve said that sometimes as a joke, sometimes seriously. For most of the work I do, I need the public to become responsible and activate the work. Otherwise it’s just another kind of formalist exercise. But we are always shifting back and forth between the personal and the public. One day I want to make something from what I read in the paper and the next day I want to make a work about a memory I have of eating a delicious meal with my boyfriend in Italy. Public life is private life. And I think at times my only public was Ross.

Once I met one of your old students in New York and he told me that you used to ask them this very same question all the time.
‘Who is your public’?

Yes. (laughs).
You know, that is better than trying to get some signature form or look or way of working. I think the tone is about not having anything extra but only what’s necessary. I believe with all my heart in the economy of means.

You mean that you’re interested in the physical form of Minimalism and not in its intentions?
Yes. I’m fascinated by the minimalist work of the late 60s. There is a lot of memory in my work but I want to stress that the formal aspects are very deliberate. I always wanted to work with rubber… how it smells, how it feels. But how could I, at this point in history? It had to have a certain irony, a certain edge.

Like with Arte Povera?
Well, with Arte Povera the main focus was on materials and not so much on the public, on means of distribution. I come from a school and from a generation that is more about distribution. It has a lot to do with being influenced by feminism, and by people like Louise Lawler, Jenny Holzer, and other women artists during the 70s and the 80s, who used videos, photographs, offset prints on the walls and so forth. You know, we have to recognize that there was a valuable artistic practice happening in the 80s, mostly by women, within the feminist camp. Work like Jenny Holzer’s and Barbara Kruger’s had a very specific purpose, it was trying to shift the dominant order. But things have changed. I make objects without language, but everything in culture happens within language. Nothing happens outside of language. The dominant narrative is not static. It changes very quickly. It requires new modes of contestation.

What were the 80s like for you?
That was a scary time for me. It was as if we had no collective memory, no past. It renounced any kind of history, any kind of involvement, any kind of judgement, it was just a massive excessive production of huge paintings with a lot of splattered colour and tacky figures doing something in the East Village, gentrifying the neighbourhood and doing painting late at night.

I live close to the East Village but I never had a studio there or anywhere else. I understand it was the same for you.
That’s a funny thing. Yes, the only time I had a studio, I didn’t make a single thing for six months. I guess that’s good. I saved the world from more unnecessary artworks. I’ve always wanted a studio, a studio that looked like an ‘artist’s studio’ with all that stuff: all the lights and the stereo music and the assistants. I never had a penny, so by the time I got around to having some money, I realized I didn’t really need a studio. It was a revenge, a sweet one.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Loverboy), 1989
courtesy: Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

Given your view about private and public, and the fact that you never had a studio, have you ever considered working on an outdoor piece?
No. We tend to make a distinction between the inside and the outside. But sometimes, just because a work is ‘out there’ doesn’t make it public. You know, a work inside a gallery, in a so-called ‘private space’, will sometimes be more public because it can relate to the public much more than anything that is outdoors. Some artists who do outdoor sculpture, they haul what is usually a large thing outside, into a place where people have no reference at all to this kind of thing. It’s the difference between art in public and art for the public. I hope that the public can have more interaction with my pieces. They are not an imposition, they’re small things, concerned with how information is transformed into meaning.

But if public and private are so interconnected, where do you think this need to separate them comes from?
Someone’s agenda have been enacted to define “public” and “private”. We’re really talking about private property because there is no private space anymore. Our intimate desires, fantasies, and dreams are ruled and interpreted by the public sphere.

You mean like on the Internet?
Internet included. The explosion of the information industry, and at the same time the implosion of meaning. Meaning can only be formulated when we can compare, when we bring information to our daily level, to our ‘private’ sphere. Otherwise information just goes by. Which is what the ideological apparatuses want and need. ‘You give us thirty minutes and we give you the world”. A meaningless one. So public life is private life. In our culture, we live in a world of interrelations. As Lenin said, ‘everything is related to everything’.

What memories do you have of your childhood between Cuba and the States?
(As if reading a list) 1957: born in Guaimaro, Cuba, the third of what would eventually be four children. 1964: Dad bought me a set of watercolors and gave me my first cat. 1971: sent to Spain with my sister Gloria, then went to Puerto Rico to live with my uncle. 1979: returned to Cuba to see my parents after an eight-year separation. Moved to New York City. 1981: Parents escaped Cuba during Mariel boat lift, my brother Mario and sister Mayda escaped with them…

You were too little to remember Kennedy.
Yes, but I’m a product of some of the programs John F. Kennedy started. I went to school because of what that man started. Womanizers and drunks and all that stuff, guys with mob connections made all these changes possible so that someone like me could get the loans and go to school.

How about your school days? What were your favorite toys?
My favorite were Minnie and Mickey; after that, the Flinstones and Pee-Wee Herman. I hate Barbies. When I went to art school every queen from the Midwest had them; they always cut their hair, painted them.

I was reading about Fidel Castro’s health conditions today. There are mixed reports. Some say he will probably go back to power in a few weeks, some say he won’t survive this year.
You know, the Right is very smart. Before they had Martians; well, we proved there’s no life on Mars. Then they said the Russians were ready to invade this country, but they’re not there any longer. Fidel is sinking, so what is there left that we can have that is as visual and symbolic as that – art.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Loverboy), 1989
courtesy: Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

Why do you think people should see your art as the ultimate villain?
Well, there is more than one reason. My own sexuality was never revealed anywhere else. I realized that I as something else that I didn’t see at home, and later as I grew up I found out what it was. It was hidden from me but I was able to find it. You know, when I had a show at the Hirschhorn, Senator Stevens, who is one of the most homophobic anti-gay senators, said he was going to come to the opening and I thought he’s going to have a really hard time trying to explain to his constituency how pornographic and homoerotic two clocks side by side are. He came there looking for dicks and asses. There was nothing like that.

What if there was something more explicit? What’d have you done?
Michelangelo said this beautiful thing when he was asked to paint out the private parts of all the people that he put in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He told the Pope “Yes, indeed, I could fix the painting but could you fix the world and then painting will follow”. Wow, that is all you need.

I mean, what if he’d have decided to censor the exhibition?
There’s always this thing about freedom of expression. But what freedom and what expression, what are we putting out? When I see someone on the left talking about freedom of speech, I think we are lost. That’s not what I’m asking. I’m not arguing for the truth, I’m arguing for lying, really lying, but with a sense of intelligence. Use their argument and turn it around for our purposes and stop being so predictable. They’re waiting for us to demonstrate because it’s all part of the process. It’s so clear that our strategy has to change.

So what was your first reaction to the invitation of representing the United States at the Venice Biennale?
Well, my first reaction was a very predictable leftist reaction, which more and more I’m questioning and finding very static and selfdefeating. At this point I do not want to be outside the structure of power, I do not want to be the opposition, the alternative. Alternative to what, to power? No, I want to have power. It’s effective in terms of change. I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. If I function like a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions. Money and capitalism and powers are here to stay, at least for the moment. It’s within those structures that change can and will take place. My embrace is a strategy related to my initial rejection.

So you’re not worried that they might destroy your work.
No. I have destroyed it already, from day one.

I know what you mean. Even within my work, I always tried to destroy myself, not just the others.
Exactly. The feeling is almost like when you are in a relationship with someone and you know it’s not going to work out. From the very beginning you know that you don’t really have to worry about it not working because you simply know that it won’t. I have control over it and this is what empowers me. It is a very masochistic kind of power. I destroy the work before I make it. But I get a lot of pleasure from jeopardizing my own career, my own way of thinking things, I think it has to do with reinventing myself. There has always been so much fragility.

Do you analyze yourself a lot?
No, I don’t want to spell out everything that I’m doing to myself, although I’m always engaged in these questions and answer sessions with myself. That’s why I don’t make that much work because, if I really ask a lot of questions, I won’t make it. I say “Why make it?” and then it’s not needed. But in the terms of the tone, I think it all has to do with going to extremes. I always enjoy extremes. I always like the fringes. Or you might call it, the margins.

Don’t you expect this exhibition to trigger a lot of memories in people’s mind?
No. People just don’t remember. It is like Casablanca, where Humphrey Bogart said “A long time ago, last night”. People don’t remember last night.

So why doing it? What for?
(pause) Honestly, without skipping a beat: Ross.

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