An interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres by Tim Rollins
Tim Rollins: This is something that I’ve always wanted to ask you: why have you deliberately, obstinately decided for some reason not to have a studio?… You don’t have the trappings of a studio: assistants, visitors, and all that. Issues of space and light are gone since your work is so sensitive to place and context. How do you determine the pieces? You say you don’t do drawings but I know you must do drawings, you must have some idea of what the piece is going to look like, so how do you begin?
Felix Gonzalez-Torres: I really don’t plan pieces using drawings. First of all, I usually dislike drawings by sculptors, they’re just so academic and expected. I don’t follow that prescribed mode. I do make drawings and photographs but they have their own specific function. They are not sketches of the sculptures, these are drawings that represent a parallel set of ideas. The reason why I don’t have a studio… I think that I’m very neurotic. Actually I guess I am neurotic. So having a studio would paralyze me completely. Just the idea that I would have a place where I had to go to work and make “something” scares the shit out of me. The studio is a scary stage set…. When you don’t have a studio you take risks, you change your underwear in public. I’m not afraid of making mistakes, I’m afraid of keeping them. I have destroyed a lot of pieces–I like the excitement of fucking up royally. Some artists can “rehearse” in their studios before they go into the gallery, I find that too easy. I don’t know, I never had anything to lose so I’ve always done it my own way.
TR: Don’t you have to give yourself a lot of installation time?
FGT: I usually do it in just one day. Some shows just take two hours to install–that’s it, I’m out of there. I think about the work and the installations for a very, very long time. I lose sleep over these things….
TR: I would like to talk about theory….
FGT: Tim, I must say that without reading Walter Benjamin, Fanon Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Borges, Mattelart, and others, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to make certain pieces, to arrive at certain positions. Some of their writings and ideas gave me a certain freedom to see. These ideas moved me to a place of pleasure through knowledge and some understanding of the way reality is constructed, of the way the self is formed in culture, of the way language sets traps, and of the cracks in the “master narrative”–those cracks where power can be exercised. It is also about influences and role models. Films-as-texts, such as movies by Godard, have been very influential to me. There is also, of course, Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin and a movie by Sarah Gomez called One Way or Another, which is a feminist view of the Cuban revolution, Santeria, and other issues. This movie is very interesting because it’s also about the meaning of love during a particular historical period. I saw that movie the same week that I saw Hiroshima Mon Amour…. Last but not least, Brecht is an influence. I think if I started this list of influences again I would start with Brecht. I think this is really important because as Hispanic artists we’re supposed to be very crazy, colorful–extremely colorful. We are supposed to “feel,” not think. Brecht says to keep a distance to allow the viewer, the public, time to reflect and think. When you get out of the theater you should not have had a catharsis, you should have had a thinking experience. More than anything, break the pleasure of representation, the pleasure of the flawless narrative. This is not life, this is just a theater piece. I like that a lot: This is not life, this is just an artwork. I want you, the viewer, to be intellectually challenged, moved, and informed.
TR: Love and fear seem to be the two great themes of your work.
FGT: It’s funny you say that because I was just thinking… Earlier I mentioned Hiroshima Mon Amour, it took me a long time to understand the opening sequence. The female character says, “You are good for me because you destroy me,” I finally understand what that means. You can be destroyed because of love and as a result of fear. Love is very peculiar because it gives a reason to live but it’s also a great reason to be afraid, to be extremely afraid, to be terrified of losing that love…. It’s not as if I have different bodies of work, I think I just have many fronts. It’s almost like being in drag. I’m in a different drag persona as needed. Sometimes I make the stacks, sometimes I do the curtains, sometimes I do text-pieces, sometimes I do canvases, sometimes the light strings, sometimes billboards or photos….
TR: I’ve heard a lot of grumbling, Felix, about the lack of an overt political or Latino content in your work.
FGT: (laughing) Well, I just want to start by saying that the “maracas” sculptures are next! I’m not a good token. I don’t wear the right colors. I have my own agenda. Some people want to promote multiculturalism as long as they are the promoters, the circus directors. We have an assigned role that’s very specific, very limited. As in a glass virtrine, “we”–the“other”–have to accomplish ritual, exotic performances to satisfy the needs of the majority. This parody is becoming boring very quickly. Who is going to define my culture? It is not just Borges and Garcia Marquez, but also Gertrude Stein and Freud and Guy Debord– they are all part of my formation. The best thing for me to do with those people is to ignore them, because I question someone who tells me what I’m supposed to do or be. I always feel like asking them why don’t they do it? I think the same thing happened with you and K.O.S. It’s very elegant for some Calvinist critic to judge your project. Anyway people criticize some of the contradictions–as if there are things in life that don’t come with contradictions. Everything is part of a contradiction, there are just different levels of contradictions. You decided to do something, something other than just teach art to young kids. You decided to push the limits. It is very exciting to take something that is there in everyday life and create from it something out of the ordinary, to give that ordinary object or situation a new meaning with a great economy of means.
TR: I’ve rarely seen an artist that loves his audience as much as you do.
FGT: You have to start by loving what you have at home. You don’t go out and preach if your house is not in order–you cannot preach a new social order. And going back to the question of why make an art object, I must also add it is a way of working out my position within this patriarchal culture. I recently saw a very traumatic photograph of a Yugoslavian soldier beating and kicking the bodies of two dead Muslim women. This soldier is a man who probably has a god, a man who performs his duty, a “family man,” a hero. And of course these are all my connotations of this photo based on the preconceptions of our own Western, Judeo-Christian culture. How do I process that picture? Another reason why I make works of art is to try to get that out of my system in a healthy way. Here is a “family man” who has the kind of respect that I as a gay man will never have. How do I deal with a culture that will give him a medal of “honor”? How? In a way I’m trying to negotiate my position within this culture by making this artwork. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel? Who am I supposed to identify with? And finally, above all else, it is about leaving a mark that I existed: I was here. I was hungry. I was defeated. I was happy. I was sad. I was in love. I was afraid. I was hopeful. I had an idea and I had a good purpose and that’s why I made works of art….
-April and June 1993
Originally published by A.R.T. Press, 1993.
Edited by Frances Colpitt