The Past and the Real

Writer: Grace Noh

What I see is not memory, an imagination, a reconstitution, a piece of Maya, such as art lavishes upon us, but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

To look at a photograph is to witness the passing of time. Whether the photograph was taken ten years ago, a month ago, or a day ago, it always captures a moment of the past viewed in the present time. Every person looking at his or her photographed image experiences a movement going back and forth between past and present.

Photographs of the dead, in particular, are always seen by the living and never by the dead. The state of being dead does not change, but the physical appearance is kept in a present state for the living. Every subject in a photograph is someone’s loved one or at least somebody recognizable in someone else’s memory. Photographs, then, preserve some kind of memory. Memory cannot be seen in photographs, but it can be evoked since photographs are, as Barthes says, “the past and the real” from previous experiences.

A French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995) says, "[S]omeone goes out in the morning, and he breathes some fresh air, and an odor comes past, of anything, some toast, let’s say, there is a complex web of sensations… So, what happens when someone who experiences it dies, or goes on to do something else? What does that [web of sensation] become? Art provides an answer to this. It’s to give a duration or an eternity to this complex web of sensations that are no long apprehended as being experienced by someone." Photographs, too, has this “complex web” of perceptions and sensations of the dead that gives an eternal quality to photographs. The person in the photograph may be dead, but the photograph itself is not “dead.” The flat sheet with an image can be touched and be seen, keeping the dead among the living.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres,  Untitled (Loverboy) , 1989, Andrea Rosen Gallery.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Loverboy), 1989, Andrea Rosen Gallery.

It is unavoidable that a photograph of the dead creates grieving and longing for the loved ones. Barthes claims, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” If so, why do people even care to take photographs? Perhaps, death does not always have to link with catastrophe.

A Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) explores this idea of
“letting go” in Untitled (The End). Presenting nothing means there is nothing to describe. A person on a bench, a cat underneath a car, a messy room… Whatever there is in this world, there is something that can always be described and captured in photographs. In Untitled (The End), however, nothing is depicted. The blank sheets of paper are vacant waiting for a projected image of someone or something afraid of losing. It is one of the saddest and most cruel pieces of Gonzalez-Torres, because it tells the truth about the ephemerality of human life and the photographs people depend upon to record it. It is like death that cannot be figured out, and it is up to the viewers to use their imaginations to try to understand what it could mean. 

Viewed as static object, Untitled (The End) mimics the solidity of sculpture.  Metaphorically, however, it is a photograph. In essence, the stacks are endless copies of paper for which there is no original. Much like the photographic negative, they exist as conceptual prototypes, from which an infinite number of reproductions can be made. Also like the photographs in an edition, Untitled (The End) can be installed in several different locations at once. In a sense, this endless reproduction of “nonexistence” resembles the eternal quality of death.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres,  Untitled (The End) , 1990.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (The End), 1990.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres,  Untitled (The End) , 1990. Installation view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photography by Peter Muscato. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (The End), 1990. Installation view at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photography by Peter Muscato. 

As these sheets of papers travel outside of the exhibition space, they inevitably assume different meanings, quite distinct from the original aesthetic. The paper may be used as a textbook cover, a drawing paper, or a poster on the wall. In this way, the pieces “reinvent themselves.” Gonzalez-Torres says, “One of the things that I find so flattering is when people take the work and they work with it. They use it. It’s just paper, after all.”

Through this process, Gonzalez-Torres tries to signify something more intimate. When he made the first candy spills and paper stacks, Gonzalez-Torres was facing the imminent death of his lover, Ross. He felt that he needed to learn “how to let go” of Ross:

I was losing the most important thing in my life – Ross, with whom I had the first real home, ever. So why not punish myself even more so that, in a way, the pain would be less? This is how I started letting the work go. Letting it just disappear. People don’t realize how strange it is when you make your work and you put it out to be seen and say, simply, “take me.” You watch them take pieces of the work – pieces of yourself – and start going out the door…

For Gonzalez-Torres, the idea of a journey does not necessarily involve physical transport; the movement implied may be spiritual as well. In his metaphorical art, the idea of traveling touches upon memory, fantasy, transformation, longing, and loss. “Traveling is also about dying,” declares the artist. “It is after all, about death.” His work was very important in his life, but losing Ross was even more difficult to let go. Untitled (The End), thus, conveys Gonzalez-Torres’s attempt to lose everything in order to confront that fear and perhaps learn something from it. The visitors take a little art with themselves as well as a bit of Gonzalez-Torres.

The photograph becomes a site of conflict as well as a site of love and death. It is painful to acknowledge that photographs do not bring departed loved ones back to life. Collectively, Gonzalez-Torres’ work serves as a reminder of what has already been lost to time in death. An American author Joan Didion says that there is a universal truth that people try to keep the dead “alive” in order to keep them with us. There comes a point at which people must relinquish the dead, “let them go, keep them dead.” Death is part of everyone’s life that ends the long journey in the living world.