Depleting Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990. As installed by Gary Simmons, garage of a friend’s home, Silver Lake, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Photo: Russell Salmon, June 5, 2020.

In recent weeks, piles of fortune cookies materialized around the world – in art spaces, restaurants, and private homes in Dubai, Beijing, Montevideo, and across the Global North. In Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport; filling up a baby grand in Knoxville; a museum locker in Düsseldorf; a broken-down Suburban parked in Niwot, Colorado; in a forest glade in Sarvisalo, Finland. The wrappers were variously clear, or foiled in red, gold, silver, or blue. In the West Village, Tel Aviv, and Stinson Beach, CA, the cookies were unwrapped and left to go stale.

The piles were part of a mammoth exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 work “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), curated by Andrea Rosen, who co-represents his estate with David Zwirner. Invitations were sent out to 1,000 dealers, critics, collectors, friends of the artist, and fans sourced from Instagram, in a move taken right out of the influencer marketing playbook. These participants were asked to source between 240 and 1,000 cookies, display them in a place of their choosing, and document them for the ‘gram. Organizers noted that sourcing may be difficult due to the pandemic and to allow for extra shipping time. No mention was made of the Amazon, Instacart, and other worker strikes, or the dubious dynamic of online shopping for nonessential goods at a time when medical professionals were falling sick for want of basic PPE. Each pile was refreshed once over the duration of the exhibition, a collective respawning on June 14.

Displaying a seeming lack of understanding as to how the internet works, participants were encouraged to use the official emojied hashtag #FGT🥠exhibition to indicate their status and distinguish their official piles from any copycats. The cookies are free for the public to take, assuming it has access, though most exist in private homes and exclusive social clubs like Hong Kongs Soho House. The organizers, mega-gallerists Zwirner and Rosen, see it as an opportunity for people to physically encounter work at a time when most art is online; the website cycles in vague bromides about spatial boundaries and “chance, hope, the unknown.”

Brianna Calello fills her bicycle’s basket with fortune cookies each day and leaves it outside her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with hand sanitizer. Photo: Brianna Calello.

Like many of Gonzalez-Torres’s piles of sweets or paper, the work conjures a body through accumulation and depletion, and the immortality of regeneration. The parallels between Covid-19 and the (still ongoing) AIDS pandemic – fears of contagion, the decimation and disposability of some lives, systemic callousness writ large – are all the more poignant for being mostly unspoken. The ongoing epidemic of police murders remind us that racism, in the US, is an underlying condition in and of itself. It’s worth noting that one Los Angeles manifestation was heaped in front of a homemade Black Lives Matter banner. But of all the Felix Gonzalez-Torres candy joints in all the world, did they really have to choose this one?

At a time when the coronavirus was being gleefully dubbed the “Wuhan virus” and the “Chinese virus” by no less than the President of the United States, it’s hard not to see the choice of fortune cookies as winkingly xenophobic. One suspects that the same people posting black squares and #BLM statements would not register the casual racism of  exhibitions like Show Mein at the 2017 SPRING/BREAK art fair whose framing trafficked in Chinese takeout stereotypes. In Omer Fast’s Chinatown LARP, meanwhile, the artist bizarrely transformed the slick James Cohan Gallery space into a worn-down Chinatown waiting room to frame two video pieces. Both exhibitions deploy Chinese stereotypes as set dressing to frame entirely unrelated artworks in a kind of spatial yellowface. In a similar manner, the fortune cookie piles suggest the late Victorian fashion of Turkish corners, which featured broadly Orientalized furniture, wallpaper, rugs, tasseled cushions, and tchotchkes. These exotic accoutrements were relegated to a specific corner, nook, or small room of a house, almost for fear of infection.

More broadly, we can understand the exhibition as an extension of overwhelmingly White, moneyed arts professionals and their tendency to trivialize Black and Indigenous death by trying to relate it to the artworld. As if that somehow makes it more legible; as if “don’t murder Black people” isn’t enough. It’s worth remembering, too, that while the pandemic might be an extended staycation for some, it signals a period of extended economic attrition and disproportionate casualties for other, overwhelmingly BIPOC populations.

An installation of the work at the Hongqiao transportation hub in Shanghai. Photo: Zhao Dun.

Take critic Blake Gopnik who recently published a Warhol biography, notably excoriated by Gary Indiana in Harper’s. Like all authors whose publication date coincided with the global pandemic, he was presumably denied a book publicity tour. Instead, in a now-deleted tweet, he compared the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that it took for a police officer to murder George Floyd to how “endless” it feels to sit through one of Warhol’s screen tests.

Saying that the artworld is racist is like saying that the sky is blue, that water is wet. It reflects the society that both built and maintains it: settler-colonialist, classist, racist, and above all anti-Black. Dana Schutz, Joe Scanlan, the Guggenheim, the generalized privileging of property over people are just some recent examples. This week I revisited Adrian Piper’s 1990 essay, “The Triple Negation of Coloured Women Artists,” and was #NotSurprised to encounter these two snippets that speak to the way that White supremacy, and its attendant racialized hubris, plays out within art criticism:

“Item, 1983: Rosalind Krauss explains to her fellow symposiasts at the NEA Art Criticism Symposium that she doubts there is any unrecognized African-American art of quality because if it doesn’t bring itself to her attention, it probably doesn’t exist.”

“Item, 1989: Roberta Smith explains to film interviewer Terry McCoy that the real problem with the art of African Americans is that it just isn’t any good, that it would be in mainstream galleries if it were, that she’s been up to the Studio Museum a couple of times and hasn’t seen anything worthwhile, that it’s all too derivative, and so on.”

That was then. The world changes and the artworld doesn’t, really, though goes occasionally perforated by the call-and-refrain of open letters and the ancient White proverb that we must do better. Regarding early responses to the Whitney Biennial – ever a survey of anti-Blackness in American art – critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted, “The consistent voices at the Times and everywhere else are entirely white. It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a Renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?” That December, Roberta Smith – now co-chief art critic at the New York Times – would discover Black artists and declare that “Black Art Has Its Moment Finally,” in a roundly-criticized article whose title was later changed to “A Sea Change in the Art World, Made By Black Creators.” That’s thirty years later, for everyone keeping count. Liberalism comes at you fast.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990. Preview of installation. Photo: Russell Salmon.

Anti-Asian sentiment plays out in subtler forms that no less pervasive. A common thread is the way that anyone who looks remotely East Asian is flattened into the monolithic umbrella of Asianness. (Also relevant here are recent discussions around capitalizing Black or White.) Just before everything shut down, a New York dealer disinvited a Vietnamese curator from working at her fair booth because “Asians are being seen as carriers of the virus.” Art workers are responding, too: a spreadsheet documenting such incidents, WE ARE NOT COVID, started by artist Kenneth Tam, has resulted in the collective StopDiscriminAsian.

There’s a different kind of flattening at play in reducing a work so inextricably linked with embodiment and loss to a PR exercise masquerading as temporary home decor. The fortune cookie exhibition celebrates the launch of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation’s new website, in a move reminiscent of the way that property developers might hire performers or street artists to “activate” space. But let’s not forget that we are talking about literal deaths here, whether from COVID-19, AIDS, or White supremacy. The cookies may be replenished. Lives cannot.

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