Candy Spilled and Deserted: Felix Gonzalez-Torres at MoMA

August 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

Rainy summer days in New York seem to bring everyone indoors. Families. Tourists. Elderly couples. Students savoring the last days of summer. Those slightly employed and with some spare time (read: me). So, a long-overdue visit to MoMA seemed like the perfect antidote to yesterday’s gloomy weather not only to my friend, Peter, and me but to those listed above.

Shoved alongside the strollers and chatty, bright-eyed foreigners, Peter and I squeezed our way into “Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now,” a small exhibition displaying the prints, posters, comics and wall stencils of South African artists, which date back to apartheid years. We marveled at the linoleum print. To make them, artists carefully scraped the surface of linoleum to shape negative space, which would later be slicked with ink and stamped out.

On the next floor, we slid in the quiet Photography Gallery and glanced at the silence-inducing art around us.

“Whoa,” Peter said with a slight laugh. “This must be Russian or something.”

Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov’s life-size, at times graphic photographs of Ukraine’s impoverished drew us in for a closer look and pushed us away at the same time. We made our round through the gallery before drifting back into the crowd at “Talk to Me,” MoMA’s intriguing and sometimes interactive exhibition about communicative design and technology. We watched videos of a man experiencing the pains of periods while wearing a machine that simulates menstruation and listened to young MIT students explain their latest development – a drink spiked by genetically-enhanced E. coli and, once ingested, results in brightly-hued poop, colors which signal disease and infection.

Connecting these seemingly unrelated exhibitions were recurring (and expected) plaques, shouting “Do Not Touch” to viewers. However, that all changed with the sound of crackling foil.

Far from the linoleum prints, haunting photographs and quirky tech pieces was a small pile of hard candies, each wrapped in red, silver and blue foil and secluded in the corner of a quiet gallery at MoMA.

Untitled (USA Today) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (my own photo)

Untitled (USA Today) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (my own photo)

As Peter and I were about to exit, we noticed children flocking to the pile and bending over to peer closely at the bounty before them. A nearby guard suddenly became animated.

“Don’t just take one,” he said enthusiastically, “grab a handful!”

This corner filled with metallic candies is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ famed work, Untitled (USA Today) and snatching its contents by the fistful is all part of the art. Throughout his short career, Gonazalez-Torres was well-known for his sensory and often edible works, which ranged from pieces of licorice on the ground to candy spills such as the one at MoMA. Though he died of AIDs in 1996, he was featured posthumously as the United State’s chosen artist at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Since then, his engaging work continues to ripple throughout the artworld. Randy Kennedy of his candy spills, “Such a strategy could be called subversive. You could also say that it worked on many levels: candy as candy; as art object; as a questioning of art objects; as a metaphor for mortality and depletion in the age of AIDS; as a means for his art and ideas literally to be spread, like a virus — or maybe like joy — by everyone who took a piece.”

From dark subjects to more light-hearted ones, his works invite viewers not only to participate, but to take something away. Something to be remembered, saved, maybe even thrown away. “Not only do the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres invite immediate and local sensory interaction, but they reach into the distance and into the future,” Deborah Cherry, a University of Amsterdam professor, says in her paper, “Sweet Memories: encountering the candy spills of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” “[A] sweet from a candy spill can be carried away, and its smell, taste, touch, look, and sound, as well as memories of its sensory experience, may last well beyond the gallery visit.”

Encouraged by the guard, Peter and I grabbed small handfuls of the candies in the corner. I came up with red, silver and blue candies – one of each. Peter preferred the silver candies and opened one as we continued onto the next room.

We stumbled upon Leandro Katz’s Alphabet II, a key to deciphering his neighboring work where varying shadows on the moon denote a different letter. Eventually, we gave up, but enjoyed this continuous engagement with the art, from reacting earlier to shocking photographs and listening to videos at “Talk to Me” to touching and tasting art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Art these days doesn’t just deign to let us look, but extends an offer to interact and even own a small part of it. All it takes is a little vulnerability on our part to receive and allow art to have more of an effect than just a passing glance. But, perhaps the usual museum-goers are not ready for that kind of intimacy with art.

As Peter and I tried to translate the moons into letters, I noticed the colored foils littered on the ground.

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