by Luca Fiore
The instruction guide to re-creating the work Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1987-1990, reads as follows, “1. Purchase two identical black-framed, battery operated commercial clocks with a 14” diameter. 2. Set both clocks to the same time. 3. Hang clocks at a height and location desirable to you. Place clocks directly next to each other touching.” Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres has said that this work is the scariest thing he has ever made. “Time is something that scares me … or used to. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.”
The work is a shameless readymade, capable of becoming a powerful, yet ambiguous and poignant metaphor for the love between two people. These are common objects that can be bought cheaply and are used in everyday offices and public spaces. It is a universal image, which is direct and understandable. Two soul mates, whose movement is synchronized, whose heartbeat, whose breath proceeds in unison within the passage of time. The epitome of an idyll. They are two beings who mirror each other, recognize each other and, despite their individuality, exist as one. For Gonzalez-Torres, however, the work – thus conceived at an ideal level – must come to terms with its own physicality. In fact, as time passes the two clocks first tend to go out of sync and then, as one of them runs out of battery, it stops while the other continues to move. When this happens the collector, or the institution exhibiting the work, has to replace the batteries, synchronize the clocks again, and restart them. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) is dedicated to the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.
These were years of controversy around the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. federal agency that supports the most promising art projects. Notably, in 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was forced to cancel a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective – funded by public money – because of accusations of “obscenity” by the religious right. According to Gonzalez-Torres, the Republicans needed some fear mongering to tighten the ranks of their electorate. Since even the Soviet Union had fallen, it was controversial artworks, particularly those by artists using homosexual imagery, that now had to have the visual and symbolic force capable of mobilizing opposition to the Republican base. But as the Cuban artist confided to critic Robert Storr: “That is one thing that bugs me about artists who are doing so-called gay art and their limitation of what they consider as an object of desire for gay men. When I had a show at the Hirshhorn, Senator Stevens, who is one of the most homophobic anti-art senators, said he was going to come to the opening and I thought: he’s going to have a really hard time explaining to his constituency how pornographic and how homoerotic two clocks side-by side are.'”
Untitled (Perfect Lovers) has the capacity to reveal the breadth of human desire; it reaches a depth that touches primal truths. Although it speaks of a love story between two men – the clocks are identical, there is no sexual difference –, its themes are universal. Eros and Tanathos, the aspiration for eternity colliding with the destructive force of time, the need for one’s own heartbeat to have an echo in another person’s. And, perhaps, it is not by chance that the outline of the two clocks touching each other resembles the mathematical symbol of infinity. These are two hourglasses, memento mori, gaugers of the finiteness of existence that evoke, through that form that from minimalist becomes symbolic, the aspiration for perfection that is never exhausted. It is a paradox that manifests itself with each movement of the hand, impossible to represent in a photographic image that captures only an isolated instant in the life of the work.
There is a letter written by Gonzalez-Torres addressed to Ross that is titled “Lovers, 1988.” It is typed, and two stylized clocks have been drawn at the top of the paper in blue pen marking the same time. The message reads, “Don’t be afraid of clocks, they are our time, time has been so generous to us. We imprinted time with the sweet taste of victory. We conquered fate by meeting at a certain time in a certain space. We are a product of time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time. We are synchronized, now forever. I love you.”
Il Foglio Arte, 24th September 2021