On The Eucharistic Potential of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Within a few days of each other, I had two friends who traveled to Chicago separately, and were at the Art Institute of Chicago on the same day within hours of each other, and both emailed me that day, to talk about a piece they saw, a piece that moved them. This isn’t that unusual, I spend a lot of time with artists and curators and I spend a lot of time talking about art. Mostly it’s a rarified form of shoptalk, a commentary on how a piece was interesting because of this idea, or that line, or tradition, or how it played into or against a work that had been done before. It’s much like shoptalk about how a liturgy goes, when talking to priests or deacons.
But this conversation was unusual for a couple of reasons. One of them was that the conversation was more emotional than most, that the work was very much about how they felt. They tended to use the words of sublimity—words that often are avoided in certain circles when talking about art. The second was the audience. One of my friends, Rachel, has a MFA at a prestigious west coast school. She shows regularly in the United States and Canada. She was showing at an apartment show at Chicago at that time. That show was curated by two people who spent time at Yale. The apartment it was held at was the Drake, one of the most exclusive addresses in America. The previous owner of the Apartment was vital to the development of the McDonald’s milkshake in the United States. One of my friends is the son of a Lutheran minister, and he himself is a Lutheran organist and choir director, who lives with his wife and two children in a small commuter suburb of Chicago. His wife and his children were with him when looking at this work.
There is a worry here about being too universal, and being too general, and two paragraphs in, I might be accused of burying the lead, by talking about the audience instead of the work, but the coincidence made me consider how we handle what we see. The work is one of nine candy piles constructed by Cuban American Queer artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, about the nature of AIDS. Each of these candy piles was the weight of someone that he loved. There were some that were the weight of he and his lover Ross Laycock. There were some that were just the weight of his lover. There was one that was the weight of a close friend of his, a French curator who was important in selling his work. The candy in each of these piles was intended to be taken.
The pile in Chicago was one that was the ideal weight of Laycock. You would take the candy, and the candy pile would disappear. One would think, that the candy pile would be empty. The wasting would be like the physical death. But every time the candy pile is renewed. Gonzalez-Torres was specific about the candy, it came from a company out of Chicago, and when that company died because the market could not sustain itself, the estate would find another. Laycock died, and then years later, Felix died, and the candy company died, and still there is a pile of candy in a gallery in Chicago that people I love can tell me about. They can bring me candy from this pile and I can eat it, allowing me to eat the weight of Laycock or Torres’ body.
This is a sad piece. I was worried about Josh’s kids when they saw this piece. I was worried that they would not understand wasting, they would not understand death, or politics, or the plague, or bodies—or about all of the other adult things that occur in this work, how the wrapper on the candy was like a condom, for example. I was worried they would not have the gravitas to see the work like Rachel saw it, they would not have the gravitas to see it like I saw it. But Josh’s wife sat down and read the work, and answered questions they might have. There was a pile of candy, and it was free candy, and it was complicated candy. It reminded me of the gospels: “Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” This candy was to be eaten, to be consumed, to be enjoyed. The tension between the joy and the sorrow, of the eating and of what to be eaten was palatable.
Josh and I talked about the experiences afterwards, and Rachel and I talked about them as well. Gonzales-Torres, had inhabited Cuba’s revolutionary atheism, and it’s exiles desire for traditional religion. But the piece, could be read through a trend in the artwork, between reciprocity, community building, gift giving—these big spectacles in foreign places, that might have failed at the small, and humble goals that they lived with. There were nine of these sculptures. Was there a problem of making a spectacle out of a commodity that was not supposed to be so large? Josh and Rachel provided two ways of working through what this meant, but I kept thinking about this for months, kept working on what the renewing meant, what to do with the small green candy waiting for me when I returned to Montreal. I thought about the Eucharist.
If we think about Felix Gonzalez-Torres prophetically, we can find a way through this. There is a metaphor for a radically open table here. A sacramentality that rests on the belief that the spirit will continually renew that which is wasted, following Annie Dillard’s idea of nature as profligate in her gifts, perhaps we can think of ourselves as profligate in ours. Thinking that Rachel can get something from the act, and Josh can and Josh’s kids—that the desire to take a candy or not take a candy, was based on the message that was given, an understanding of the Eucharist as renewing, and as understandable by those who gathered around might be useful.
There are other ways that the Eucharist might be thought of, in the ideas of Torres. Think of the body of Christ, and think about how in language, in the creation of ritual, we make palatable the leaking, the rotting, the seeping. The sacrament has a way of making the horror of the body palatable for human appetites. We think of Laycock as a pile of candy, we think of his body falling apart, but Torres’ work—like the ritual of the Eucharist, allows for the wasting, the falling apart, to be wrapped and made palpable. The sanctification is a problem of palatability.
Torres work is tragic work. It is the work of plague. It is making an object of ritual devotion, of saints bodies, of a kind of post-modern, commercial reliquary that is marked as an AIDS body, but also hope that the AIDS body will be returned and restored. The death cannot occur without the resurrection. The Eucharist, is a sorrowful and tragic act. A pile of candy that has no limits, that can be forever given away, has a kind of joy. It is pretty much the perfect ideal of joy. Josh’s kids standing in front of this pile (let’s make them conveniently innocent) and they see this pile, and they can take as much as they want. Knowing that it is an abstract representation of everything that is written on a body that is dying—the governmental neglect, the hoping and not receiving a cure, the losing Laycock, the ideal body that can never be made ideal—and still knowing that it is a gift, that it is fit for everyone.
That might be the most powerful lesson that Rachel, with her art theory, and her working in the midst of a rarefied wealth, and that Josh, with his Lutheran heritage of low Eucharist, can receive in this catholic act.
Anthony Easton is a graduate student at Concordia University, Montreal.