Grief, loss and illness is the predominant language of society today and nobody understood this better than the late American artist Felix González-Torres. This is why his art is having a resonant moment now, on show across Hong Kong at David Zwirner Hong Kong, Soho House Hong Kong and Tai Kwun.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Lately, the works of late Cuban-born American artist Felix González-Torres (1957–1996) seems to be everywhere. This is especially the case in Hong Kong. On view since 18 May, the latest group show at David Zwirner Hong Kong, “The Real World”, features paintings, sculptures and installations from the 1990s and early 2000s, including a gallery presentation solely focused on González-Torres.
Among the artist’s exhibited works is Untitled (Ross in L.A.) (1991), one of his replenishable paper stacks comprising large sheets of paper with a metallic silver rectangle printed on each sheet surface, allowing visitors to take individual pieces. The exhibition also includes photographic jigsaw puzzles that González-Torres created as editions from 1987 to 1992, and a smaller iteration of one of his iconic “Light Strings” works.
Just a short walk away, an intimate yet expansive version from his “Light Strings” series, “Untitled” (North) (1993) is on display at heritage and arts centre Tai Kwun’s JC Contemporary as part of the exhibition “trust & confusion”, running until December. Further west of the island, “Untitled” (Loverboy) (1989) is open to the public at members-only club Soho House Hong Kong as part of “Curtain”, a collaboration between Hong Kong’s Para Site and Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum showcasing existing and new works and site-specific interventions by 24 artists.
The fact that this artist-specific resurgence is happening now makes sense since we are living through a quixotic time of plague and socialisation, with different cities and countries caught in varying states of the pandemic. Even in places that have muddled through the past year or so with relative normalcy within its borders, the uncertainty is palpable, time seems warped, loss and anxiety permeates the very air.
This in-between state or no-man’s land where illness and grief collide is at the heart of González-Torres’ art. After all, some of his most famous works were created during the AIDS pandemic in the ’90s. He started producing lively looking sculptures comprising strands of plastic beads on metal rods, akin to curtains in an old fashioned disco. However, he chose to name them “Untitled” (Chemo) (1991) and “Untitled” (Blood) (1992), instantly inciting images of disease and suffering.
In fact, the use of ordinary objects such as light bulbs, candies, mirrors, and clocks in his art creates a “unique access point for audience to reflect the lightness of life, as well as the fragility and passing of it,” said Xue Tan, Senior Curator at Tai Kwun. His conceptual works profoundly touch on subjects of love, friendship, and loss, she added.
“Untitled” (Loverboy) at Soho House is particularly noteworthy in this regard. The sets of gauzy light blue curtains hang in front of open (or closed) windows, displaying the artist’s trademark capacity of using simple materials in profound arrangements, in this case, evoking a sudden or unplanned exit, foreshadowing the loss of his partner. At the same time, the installation is an unmistakable and tenuous representation of unseen, absent forces, true to life.
Maybe it is this very unfathomability that makes his art difficult to truly grasp even now. His works are known for emphasising the connectivity between people and art by requiring the participation of the audience to be completed. However, even in such an instance, we fall short.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world ground to an inexplicable halt, González-Torres’s 1990 artwork “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) was staged as a “live exhibition”, inviting 1000 art professionals to create similar piles of cookies wherever they were and to share it on social media.
Even though it was meant to be a “response to the moment” and an “exercise in sharing and community building”, it became a “tacky hashtag” inciting controversy about “the fealty of the artist’s foundation to the spirit of his work”. Even worse, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) was launched online on the same day the murder of George Floyd led to Black Lives Matter protests flooding social media. Besides, if anyone could understand such a push for change spurred by tragic loss, it would have been González-Torres.
“In the era when Felix lived, his creations emphasised personal identity, self-awareness, and the persistence of relationship. Reflecting on the past year, the many political fluctuations and conflicts that have occurred around the world find an echo and resonance in his works,” observed Leo Xu, Senior Director at David Zwirner Hong Kong.
In his boldly empathetic way, González-Torres captured the zeitgeist, not just of his time, but even ours. He was able to do this consistently in his art because he understood a simple truth, articulated best by James Baldwin—that our pain and heartbreak are not unprecedented in the history of the world, in fact they are the very things connecting us with all the people who are alive, or who have ever been alive.
The Real World
18 May – 31 July 2021
David Zwirner Hong Kong, Central
15 May – 25 July 2021
Across two locations: Para Site, Quarry Bay & Soho House Hong Kong, Sheung Wan
trust & confusion
5 May – 5 December 2021
JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun, Central