Ethics, Aesthetics, and Public Discourse Through Art | IEABC (Art)icle Series


This year, the theme of ARCOmadrid (one of the leading international art fairs, and the largest in Spain) was It’s Just A Matter of Timeor “Es solo cuestión de tiempo“. This ambiguous—and oddly premonitory—message honors the work of Felix González-Torres. The artist, born in Cuba (1957), produced some of the most politically outspoken artwork of the late 20th century, having been greatly involved in sociocultural activism throughout the entirety of his career.

González-Torres was a pioneer in exhibiting art in social spaces with the aim of generating public discourse. An important portion of his work was created as a result of his identity as an openly gay man, and in the context of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. One of the pieces that portrays his reflections on this issue is Untitled (It’s Just a Matter of Time): a public billboard showing the phrase printed in Gothic typeface against a plain black background. Created in 1992, it was originally presented as part of the exhibition “Gegendarstellung: Ethics/Aesthetics in Times of AIDS” in Hamburg, Germany. Gegendarstellung translates to “right of reply”, connoting freedom of speech and the ability to defend oneself against public criticism. Most importantly, part of the project consisted of exhibiting the billboard in many major cities of North and South America, Europe, and Asia, translating the sign to the official language of each country.

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The work of Félix González-Torres embodies a significant development brought by modern and contemporary art—the transcendence of artwork from museums, galleries, or private spaces to the streets. By choosing to exhibit his pieces in the public sphere, his audience widens to anyone and everyone, to society at large. In the case of It’s Just a Matter of Time, this comes in conjunction with the purposeful ambiguity of his chosen phrase, which adopts a personalised meaning for each viewer.

What is just a matter of time? Even when situating oneself within the specific context of the AIDS epidemic, a multiplicity of contradictory meanings could be derived. From a more pessimistic perspective, it could be a reference to death; on the other hand, it could also refer to social evolution through awareness, and the arrival of a united response to fight the disease and support its victims. However, when stepping away from this context, the work leaves much more room for interpretation. For the average viewer of this piece—who might be commuting to work, or simply observing their surroundings—the message would naturally wrap itself around personal narratives.

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The works of González-Torres meet at a crossroads between aesthetics and functionality. His minimalistic and unexplicit presentation of grave themes, combined with his less is more approach to social awareness, makes for meaningful interactions with individual spectators and the public at large. Viewers are invited to think, and the audience’s role changes fundamentally: from being the passive recipient of an idea to being an active contributor to the creation of meaning. The artist’s messages are loud and powerful, without having to recur to the elements of shock or graphic imagery.

Another great example of this is the 1991 installation, Untitled (Perfect Lovers), pictured below. Consisting of two identical clocks, he once again alludes to the question of time in the context of disease. The clocks start ticking at the same time but eventually fall out of synchronisation, with one stopping before the other; Gónzalez-Torres created this artwork shortly before his partner, Ross, died from AIDS. At first sight, Untitled is nothing more than mundane everyday objects. Upon learning the artist’s intent and personal background, however, the work becomes incredibly profound, intimate, and powerful. Once again, the room left for interpretation is what allows Félix González-Torres to break aesthetic boundaries for a larger purpose: firstly, by showing the impact of quiet activism. Secondly, by taking each viewer of his work on a different, personalised emotional journey.

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Coming back to the present day, there is no denying that the work of Félix González-Torres remains poignant—perhaps more so now than at any other time since its creation. For this reason, it’s a fascinating coincidence that ARCOmadrid chose this artist as the thematic focus of the Fair’s 2020 edition (the decision was announced a year prior, in March 2019). The meaning behind “It’s Just a Matter of Time” was readapted for the observation of artistic practices in our contemporary age, while keeping the initial reflexive undertone of the phrase.

“The work of artist Félix González-Torres has been growing like a continuous background in recent decades, like an aspiration, a desire or an accompaniment that makes the notion of progressive and linear history more complex (…) the participation of the spectator in his work, the possibility of introducing emotionality in the conceptual patterns, the capacity for making the most mundane things symbolic, political activism as formal poetics, the seam between the public and the private… today seem fundamental to understand the role of contemporary artistic practices in the 21st century and maintain their complex space”

This reinterpretation by the curators of ARCOmadrid does justice to the symbolic nature of the Cuban artist’s work, in the context of the contemporary art world. Something that is worth highlighting is their installation of the work in a billboard format, as was originally intended by its creator. This time, the message (in its Spanish translation, “Es solo cuestión de tiempo”) was erected in the streets and metro stops of Madrid—the same public spaces that we now find deserted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and state of emergency. Almost thirty years later, society is once again asked to consider this statement. Despite the fact that the public exhibition ended on March 1, there is an undeniable parallel between the phrase and what would become the main public discourse less than two weeks later.

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Attending ARCO was one of my last memorable experiences before Spain went into full lockdown on March 14. One of my main personal observations during and after the Fair was the amazing capacity of art to speak about social and political issues, with or without the use of words. Going beyond the parallels between two situations in which disease looms over society, the work of Félix González-Torres resonates on many different levels. It alludes to patience; to reflection; to the need for solidarity. Perhaps this is because artwork about time is paradoxically atemporal. In a world of ceaseless exchange of information, the importance of generating sensible, thoughtful, and open discussions about public issues is sometimes forgotten. I believe that art—and its democratization in contemporary times—is the best possible medium to catalyze this. Regardless of our personal interpretations of the meaning, the message remains the same: stop, think, discuss, act.

Editorial note: this article was published on the LinkedIn page of the IE Arts & Business Club (link).

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