… the ghost of the present.

FGT portrait wongs
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of The Wongs), 1991

In this third section from Miwon Kwon’s essay, The Becoming of a Work of Art: FGT and a Possibility of Renewal, a Chance to Share, a Fragile Truce, she talks about Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ portraits and their spatial relationships with the rooms they occupy.

“It is striking that the artist viewed the ultimate act of taking control, of becoming empowered as an author, to be found in a masochistic negation, a paradoxical assertion of identity and power through the “death” of his artwork, and by extension self-negation as author. The radical implications of such an outlook are the starkest when we consider his “portrait” series originating in 1989, which is structured like his “datelines,” that is, as a sequence of words and dates evenly spaced as a running line of text and numbers, but painted directly on ideally contiguous walls of a given room, just below where the ceiling meets the walls, as a frieze along the room’s entire perimeter. As is well known, these unorthodox portraits do not offer visual likeness of their subjects, nor do they narrate their life stories in any conventional sense. Like the discontinuous events and dates cited in the Sheridan Square billboard, FGT’s portraits offer a non-chronological, “incoherent,” or open set of events and dates that frame a void, in this case the space of the room in which the work is installed, whether this be someone’s home or in a museum. The specific events and dates constituting the content if these portraits are a mix of personally significant moments chosen by the portrait’s subjects and historically and culturally significant moments chosen by the artist. Their juxtapositions produce a tension in which the “sitter’s” private moments become contrapuntally charged by the public ones and vice versa. Simultaneously, the spare inventory of past event, literally framing a given space, “captions” the activities taking place within it, underscoring the constancy of the past as the grounds or the ghost of the present.” –pp.303-4



Another segment of the essay on Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Miwon Kwon from which the title for the workshop is taken. Here Kwon looks at Gonzalez-Torres’ work in relation to the structures of historical narrative:

“The most sophisticated interpreters of [“Untitled” (billboard), 1989], however, have recognized that the work’s most significant politics lie not in the assertion of gay content but in formal attributes that radicalize conventional structures of historical narrative. For David Deitcher, the work “testifies to the artist’s mistrust of institutionalized, linear methods of historical inscription, such as those that commonly render lesbians and gays invisible while claiming to tell the whole truth.” Similarly, Simon Watney has written of the work: “History is thus specifically not presented as a seamless, progressive narrative, expressing some supposedly unified historical force or will.” Instead, as Watney continues, “events and institutions coexist, as in memory, in no particular order or sequence beyond that of our own active interpretive making. The ‘private’ defiantly invades ‘public’ space.” –p.289

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, (Untitled, Billboard Poster), 1989


…as if she’s fallen into some intimate alignment with the logic of a remote and foreign cosmos (of another person, time, place).

A segment of the essay on Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Miwon Kwon — concerning both portraiture and archives — from which the title for the workshop is taken:

“On the one hand, the simultaneous feeling of intimacy and distance that I am trying to describe is not untypical of a researcher’s encounter with material left behind in any archive. Digging through accumulated letters, photos, tapes, journals, notes, memorabilia, sketches, and other ephemera that once belonged to someone — saved for everyone and no one at the same time — the researcher finds herself an intruder (albeit one with exceptional privilege of access), Propelled by the hope of discovering unknown information or as-yet unarticulated insights, even secrets, regarding an artist and his or her work, the researcher moves through the archival terrain understanding its ultimate indifference to the specificity of her identity and desire. Nonetheless, she harbors the fantasy that, surely, the buried information, insights, and secrets have been waiting specifically for her gaze, for the narration that only she could give them. A world of private thoughts, feelings, and exchanges that were never meant for her eyes or ears coalesces as a palpable reality in her imagination. She thinks what she finds is familiar, even if her discoveries are contrary to her expectations. The researcher is rewarded with a sense of connection and continuity — with history, with ideas, with persons, with the reality of others, with truth. And even though this sense of connection and continuity is premised on insurmountable separation and discontinuity, the misrecognition provides a kind of solace that affirms her sense of self as a knowing and intelligent person, as if she’s fallen into some intimate alignment with the logic of a remote and foreign cosmos (of another person, time, place).” –Miwon Kwon, The Becoming of a Work of Art: FGT and a Possibility of Renewal, a Chance to Share, a Fragile Truce, published in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, edited by Julie Ault

All images from The Carl George / Felix Gonzalez-Torres / Ross Laycock archive at Visual AIDS. See the Visual Aids blog for more information.