“Forms gather meaning from their historical moment…Ask a few simple questions to define aesthetics: whose aesthetics? at what historical time? under what circumstances? for what purposes? … Then you realise suddenly very quickly that aesthetic choices are politics.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (interview with Tim Rollins, 1993)

Felix Gonzale-Torres, Perfect Lovers 1994

While in any exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work all viewers equally have the power to encounter and interpret the work within their own circumstance and on their own terms (they are “open” works in this sense and in other crucial ways), the exhibition currently running at the MACBA museum in Barcelona affords an opportunity to present a political reading of Felix Gonzalez Torres’ work in relation to postcolonial discourse and anti-fascist struggle, especially as it relates to Spain and the Americas, their shared histories and points of contact, and how these impact the personal sphere through questions of memory, authority, freedom and national identity.

The exhibition places an emphasis on reading Gonzalez-Torres’ work in relation to Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean culture, not as a simple, biographical narrative, but rather as a way of complicating any essentialist reading of his work through a single idea, theme or identity. Gonzalez-Torres’ use of language is subtle, and his care in the construction of titles means that they are deliberately multivalent, their meaning changing when viewed from different geo-political perspectives or moments in time. As someone who moved between contexts and identities, Gonzalez-Torres carefully addresses the complex encodings of a variable identity in his work.

The work on show addresses the broad politics of Gonzalez-Torres’ practice as it relates to ideas of authority, judgment and memory/amnesia, and through these the associated politics of time. The works are linked through oblique references to authoritarian or establishment culture, to fascism and social conservatism, as well as to the repression of the gay community and homophobic attitudes that could refer to the US during the AIDS crisis in the eighties and nineties, but which can also be connected to Spain and an equivalent repression under, and persisting after, Franco.

Felix Gonzale-Torres, Perfect Lovers 1990

While the pieces could reference a particular era of politics of the United States, at the core of Gonzalez-Torres’s work was its intention to be both timeless and malleable with context, and thus they apply equally to recent history evoking the politically polarising years of former President Donald Trump and his ongoing influence. Nevertheless, in Barcelona they might suggest a different interpretation: that of the history of the Spanish Republic, Barcelona’s support for this legitimate government during the Spanish Civil War and the repercussions during the subsequent years of dictatorship, Spain’s amnesia about and irresolution of its own fascist past, and contemporary resonances in the threat of the far right and the resurgence of populism. Time itself, as referenced by a number of the works, can also be seen as political here.

“Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), 1987–1990, is comprised of two identical, initially synchronised wall clocks, placed side by side so that they are just touching. This double-circle composition, which also forms an equivalent of the symbol for infinity, can signify enduring love (and therefore time in relation to love), and through its use of doubling, sameness and touch, can also stand particularly for homosexual love. Nevertheless, it exemplifies a nuanced strategy the artist used to evade censorship from the political right. In Barcelona, aligned as it is to the local time, it gains a difference layer of significance; even a clock telling the time has a historical resonance that continues to the present. The links of the Franco regime with Nazism, and the fact that much in the past has not been openly addressed, makes this work particularly potent in the context of Barcelona, traditionally known as a centre of opposition to Franco. During the exhibition, if the clock fall out of synchronisation with the local hour and each other, or stop, the curator can decide if they should be corrected or not. The artist said about the work, Time is something that scares me. . . or used to. This piece I made with the two clocks was the scariest thing I have ever done. I wanted to face it. I wanted those two clocks right in front of me, ticking.” Nevertheless, in another typewritten text titled Lovers 1988, which accompanied a schematic drawing related to the work he wrote: “Don’t be afraid of the clocks, they are our time, the 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 the time, therefore we give back credit where it is due: time. We are synchronized, now forever. I love you.”

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: The Politics of Relation

Curated by Tanya Barson

MACBA museum

Till September 12