We are made up of the sum of our memories. People define ourselves by our experiences – we build an identity out of the past, with which we cast ourselves into the future.
However memory is not perfect. People sometimes remember things incorrectly, or forget. As we age memory can become less reliable. Sometimes a person is left grasping, looking for a date or a place or a name, some kind of marker to use as a way-finder.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres uses such labels in his art. I have experienced some such of his work in two contexts lately – a solo show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. These shows were understated and elegant – simple words, names, places, or events, listed with a year, painted high on the gallery walls, prompting viewers to raise their gaze, mimicking the way one looks up to try to pluck a tray memory from the air above them.
In his art Gonzalez-Torres gives hints to an identity, but not a full picture. He paints the backdrop of a character without filling in the detail – no eye color, no unique fingerprints. He strips identity and person from each other, leaving space for viewers to contextualize themselves in the work – creating and come and go space for memory – both communal and individual.
We are asked to remove ourselves from time and occupy the role of half-informed voyeur. In doing so, the intangible quality of memory is accentuated as the viewer realizes they will never have the full story. Gonzalez-Torres puts the secrecy of self on display, showing how you can never fully know someone else, no matter how absorbed into another’s life you may become.
It is emotional – seeing orphan memories only half-identified, and knowing that the art, even if only in some small way, truly does mimic and illuminate life.