The sweetness of lifeBMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7253.121/a (Published 08 July 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:121
Felix Gonzalez-Torres Serpentine Gallery, London, until 16 July
Works also appear in the children's ward at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, on billboards across London, and by night at the Camden Art Centre
Sweets are the artistic medium for the installation Untitled (Rossmore II) at London's Serpentine Gallery. They are green sweets wrapped in cellophane and stacked in a corner. The piece refers to the street in Los Angeles where the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his partner, Ross Laycock, lived before Laycock's death from AIDS in 1991. Five years later, Gonzalez-Torres would also be dead from an AIDS related illness.
The Cuban born artist never spoke publicly about the disease, but his work stands as the most humane of reflections on life and love, on mortality and loss. Untitled (Placebo) is a huge shimmering rectangular lake of chocolate covered toffees individually wrapped in silver cellophane. Visitors are invited to participate in these works and help themselves, sensually consuming with the mouth as well as the eye. Elsewhere they are urged to take posters or offset prints from piles labelled with their “ideal” heights.
Gonzalez-Torres was an artist in the vanguard of the movement to put meaning back into minimalist art. He also believed that “authorship” of a work is a collaboration between the maker, presenter, owner, and viewer, and he left it to the curators to decide whether to replace the candy consumed or to allow visitors to pick away until the artwork eventually disappeared. The Serpentine Gallery replenishes the works each evening, perhaps a comment on life fading away but also being renewed.
As with everything made by this artist, there are multiple layers of meaning. The narrative on death—a smoked mirror on the wall forces you to look at yourself alongside the reflection of a coffin-like lagoon—stands in perfect harmony with a narrative about life. We, the viewers at the edge of the candy spill, decide whether to do forbidden things. Should we flout the conventions of an art gallery, sucking sweets from a stranger and getting something for nothing? Gonzalez-Torres's message, above all, is about choice.
Hope (is the sweet a cure?) and love are never far behind. Untitled 1989/1990 consists of two stacks of paper. The first says, “Somewhere better than this place,” the second, “Nowhere better than this place.” Gonzalez-Torres reached the height of his artistic powers during the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic in the United States and became, at the age of 39, one of its victims. But his depictions of the sweetness of life and the transition, difficult but necessary, to another place in death is utterly even-handed. I came away feeling that the artist must have ended up agreeing with both statements. People make mistakes, make the wrong choices, end up dying. But life is still beautiful.