Félix González-Torres’s Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) as Countermonument

“Now there is one thing I can tell you: you will enjoy certain pleasures you would not fathom now. When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire place, beside you. At the present time, this is not yet possible. Let yourself be inert, wait till the incomprehensible power … that has broken you restores you a little, I say a little, for henceforth you will always keep something broken about you. Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more.”

-Marcel Proust, in a letter to André Beaunier after his mother’s death, 1906

There is a Proustian kind of mourning in the way artist Félix González-Torres spoke in interviews about his body of work (and to call it a body is to gesture toward the kind of relationship between absence and presence that his pieces awaken); he cultivated an internal dialogue with Rilke, who wrote that “one must have memories of many nights of love . . . but one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window . . . [these] memories must have turned to blood within us, to glance and to gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves” (Castiglia & Reed, 191). To see González-Torres’s oeuvre through this lens is to conceive of the measures of loss, anxiety and hope poured equally into his work, where violent realism and visionary idealism entwine so as to become inextricable. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in his 1991 piece Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform), which, I will argue here, might be read as a memorial designed to mourn losses by dancing them. 

González-Torres debuted Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) as part of an exhibition entitled “Every Week There Is Something Different” wherein he displayed photographs of the thirteen inscriptions around the American Museum of Natural History’s Roosevelt monument. “In the second week,” author and AIDS historian Christopher Castiglia writes, “González-Torres removed all but three of the photographed inscriptions—‘Soldier,’ ‘Humanitarian,’ ‘Explorer,’” He then installed a platform in the midst of the gallery. For the majority of its viewers, the piece appeared as just that: a blue-grey plinth bordered on its top edge by old-fashioned stage lights (If Memory Serves, 194). It had not yet become a pedestal to hold a figure or an object, but rather rested in a state of tacit anticipation, awaiting something as yet unannounced.

For a select few gallery wanderers, the plinth would be mounted by a silver lamé-clad and tennis-shod dancer who, armed with a portable music player and headphones, would dance for five minutes atop the platform to music only he could hear. For some of those viewers, those who were attentive to it, the absence would be replaced by a body whose presence would conjure other bodies—bodies whose sexuality was tragically inscribed onto the historical registers of a disease; bodies whose dancing celebrated eroticism and whose eroticism was labelled as illness; bodies whose continuous deaths were not mourned on a national level even as they were and are passing away; bodies lost to politics for whom the project of memorialization might never rightly or properly be confined to a solid medium; bodies whose loss in some way exceeds or complicates stone and metal. Castiglia paints a vivid picture of the memorial reversal that Untitled (Go-Go Dancing) performs:

“This seemingly whimsical piece has serious implications. The culture represented by go-go dancing—discos, bars, sex clubs—was by 1991 in Manhattan itself a kind of endangered species, though not of the sort displayed in the Museum of Natural History. Gonzalez-Torres shifts the rhetorics of loss and memorialization, replacing the fossilized time of the Roosevelt monument (and, for that matter, the Natural History Museum) with the living unpredictable time of go-go dancing, the imperial figure of Roosevelt with the erotic figure of the dancer, the aesthetic distance and social propriety associated with the art gallery with the awkward yet enthralling immediacy of a living exhibitionist, with all the conflicting connotations of deviant pleasure and exploitation that go-go dancing arouses” (194).

A call for democratized mourning is currently being answered by a new species of increasingly interactive memorials held in public spaces where mourners and viewers are encouraged to contribute the fingerprint of their own loss to the cumulative whole. Memorials of this kind might be in many ways considered to be enacting performances of grief. However, as Dana Luciano remarks in Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-Century America, the logic of these memorials “remains continuous with forms of nineteenth century consolation insofar as both assume that a benevolent collective effort in the present may help ‘cure’ ongoing emotional damage” (n.p.). A monument to a loss caused by AIDS, a disease of social, political, and physical body that created a plague which repeatedly and violently removed flesh from the world and continues to do so on a daily basis, cannot reconcile itself merely to such an effort. Rather, it must syncretize the ongoing nature of the tragedy with the shock of the event—the trauma of the loss of so many bodies within such a short span of years, and the grief of the bodies that continue to be criminalized, feared, and passed over due to their indexical placement in a language of disease—an ambitious task, perhaps, for the monument to perform. A monument to AIDS cannot cry out to the public in a single voice; the consequences of its horrors immediately surpassed the borders of eventhood and enshrined themselves in rhetorics of continuous discrimination, contagion, and fear-mongering. In The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman calls for a “wall of white marble with the names of every New Yorker who died of government neglect, and blank tablets with room for more to come, surrounding a white marble fountain spouting water the color of blood” (48).

In order to accomplish what Luciano calls a “countermonumental” function, a memorial to the losses caused by AIDS, particularly one whose sphere is not the public park or the Natural History Museum but the art world, must perform a temporal disruption. It cannot operate under the conditions of the traditional monument whose solid medium affirms a narrative historical certainty; nor should it operate like the interactive monument, whose emphasis on evoking and arranging affect “simply complements the sentimental assumption that the point of the past is to complete the observing subject” (Luciano, n.p.). A countermonument prizes disorientation, dislocation, and atemporality as techniques of historical remembrance. The traumatic event stopped time, and the memorial must therefore do the same; and yet it must also negotiate the fact that official clock-time did not, in fact, stop. Such a project requires that a portal be opened between then and now—a certain queering of time initiated in order to give mourners and viewers access to an affective remembering that points toward the event but reaches past it in multiple spatial and temporal directions:

Drawing on dispersed and disruptive allegorical forms, [the countermonument] reconciles audience as the space of interpretation—a space, that is, in which something like a critical counterpublic might continue to inform, reform, and reinvent itself and its relations . . . Countermonumentalism cannot simply deny the power of the sacralized image; rather, it seems in effect to ruin that image, reopening the flow of time within it. (Luciano, n.p.)

The memory of such a collective loss calls for an enactment of physical passing, a durational mourning invested with a visceral reminder of the pleasure of having and losing a body. The queer countermonument must account for the sexuality of the bodies it engages. It is political by virtue of its fierce reorganization of the official narrative by which losses are ranked in order of importance. The countermonument reorders and confuses memory, enshrining forgetting as an act of equal importance to remembering. And those viewers who come after, those who supposedly miss the event itself, arrive to find only the traces of an intangible affect lingering at the scene, without certainty as to the exact nature of the loss, but feeling like they have in some way suffered it by their own absence. Or perhaps they do not feel anything at all. Luciano posits that “traumatic history is most effectively engaged not in the transcendence of a single symbolic image but from moment to moment, as one struggles to move through the memorial site or watches its appearance and disappearance” (n.p.). The countermonument arises in response to the codified inadequacy of the national visual response to the trauma it mourns, but does not orbit around that visuality, which, in the case of AIDS, has either been rendered markedly invisible or sensationalized past the point of reason.

Shane Vogel writes in “By the Light of What Comes After: Eventologies of the Ordinary” that a traumatic event might be divided into two diverse impacts, “two different shocks, one marked by spectacularity and suddenness, and the other by the slow inexorability of routine, familiarity, and order” (248). To come upon Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) is to experience one or the other of these events; the shock of the dancing, writhing, grooving body in some way reiterates the collision of the loss it memorializes; it does not let the death rest and reabsorb into the everyday. It rewinds the official chronology back to the moment of its birth as an artwork and halts time there for five minutes, where it performs an active meditation on the impossibility of immortality. The other shock, experienced as an absence, reorders time around the first shock, performing a reintegration of affect into the fabric of the everyday. As Nicholas Birns writes about Ralph Lemon’s counter-memorials, “the banality of the present is resistance to the sentimentalities of elegy even as it, in a more exacting way, calls attention to the violence of the past” (Dance, 205). The union of these two shocks effectively provides “not only a way of thinking about the aesthetic event (new expressive possibilities, the shock of the avant-garde, or the singularity of a work of art) but also about the aesthetics of the event: the sensuousness and feelings of coherence-in-incoherence that signal an encounter with the unassimilable” (Vogel, 250).

Dance is consistently evoked using a rhetoric of death: “the dancer is always already an absent presence in the field of the gaze, somewhere between body and ghost, a flash suspended between past and future,” André Lepecki writes (Exhausting Dance, 125). In this way, because the past is figured as that which dies away at the very moment it is given life, the dancer has no choice but to hover just before haunting the spaces he inhabits; his project is to evade death at every turn, but his product cannot similarly escape its fate. However, one might hypothesize that all bodies are working toward dying, which is to say that, contrary to critic Arlene Croce’s assertion that it is impossible to criticize “an artist who paints a picture in his own blood,” all art might be considered “victim art” because the body by its nature is in a process of working that will eventually lead to its death (The New Yorker). The dancer directly exhibits this process, inviting a public to witness his dying, moment by moment. And yet, paradoxically, his dancing is characterized as a living art. Thus, the dancer might be considered the ultimate enactor of memorial, if memorial is figured as that whose purpose is to syncretize the violent event with its aftermath, to reconcile the slow progression of death with the full occupation of the body that life requires (Vogel).

Because of these associations with death, by way of a successive series of performance studies hypotheses, dance has been firmly ensconced in a discourse of melancholia, a fact that both blesses and curses its performative project. Lepecki writes: “If melancholia keeps in place particularly morbid subjectivities and their constitutive relational blindness—it is also the affect allowing for the exchange of affects after colonialism” (128). He suggests that this melancholic affect, properly harnessed, might be employed in service of a spirit of resistance. Additionally, perhaps, the task of remembering lost bodies, of “not forgetting,” might be detached from “the morbid implications that melancholy always carries with it” (128). He proposes an extension of that which is considered to be the now past its temporal boundaries in order to let it perform remembrance without succumbing entirely to the depression that accompanies its loss. In other words, absence and presence might coalesce and enact a swift exchange, a fluctuation within the span of an instant, and in so doing work toward cultivating alternative experiences of forgetting and remembering that trouble or exceed dance’s overwhelmingly melancholic tendencies.

González-Torres’s go-go dancer, in reiterating the vacillations between the presence and absence of dying bodies, allows grief a living vessel, if only for five, unannounced minutes. His body performs a lightning vibration between nostalgia and liveness, anticipation and fulfillment, hope and disillusionment. And no sooner has it enacted all this than it rips itself away again, leaving some doubt as to whether it appeared at all. González-Torres once claimed in an interview with Nancy Spector: “My work cannot be destroyed. I have destroyed it already, from day one” (122). In the wake of the body, the queer countermonument turns to its former status as an object that cannot visibly remember loss, though its surface bears traces, invisible to the naked eye, of its once having occurred. In other words, the piece enacts a haunting whose ghosts are always dancing.

In his work on the nature of queer futurity, José Muñoz proposes the stage as an arena for a “Utopian performativity” which “suggests another modality of doing and being that is in process, unfinished” (Cruising Utopia, 99). He claims that this mode might be accessed by way of artworks that offer, in Bloch’s term, an “anticipatory illumination,” an experience of the moment just-before that lets the performance “linger in our memory, haunt our present, and illuminate our future” (104). Thus González-Torres’s Platform acts not only as a stage upon which previously unexercised gestures of mourning and pleasure might be performed, but also functions as a rehearsal space wherein, according to Muñoz, “we work on a self that does not conform to the mandates of cultural logics such as late capitalism, heteronormativity, and, in some cases, white supremacy” (111). Such a space allows a deconstruction, reorganization, and reconstruction of identity in order to embrace a utopia whose very existence is predicated upon a someday-futurity; Gonzalez-Torres once described his work as aiming to unite “the fear of loss and the joy of living, of growing, of changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and then being replenished all over again from scratch” (Castiglia & Reed, 195).

The dialogue around memorialism that Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) incites is further complicated by its placement in the gallery or museum, an institution whose political implications are often as whitewashed as the walls themselves. The museum is able to exercise an invisible violence by way of the art-historical sovereignty it wields, mediating and enforcing many social and economic inequalities. Additionally, the museum’s discourse, in a manner similar to that of the national monument, is one of completion. It does not encourage emotional engagement with the art it exhibits, but rather fosters a tone indicative of removed, if slightly enthusiastic, mastery. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes: “We have too easily swallowed the Modernist idea that art which aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be ‘bad art’. . . and that only art which wants nothing too clearly of us can be good” (Religion for Atheists). We no longer know how to mourn, wonder, or seek solace before works of art. I am interested in the potential in allowing Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) to want something from us—of letting its temporal and bodily dance, or the lack thereof, engage us fully in a mournful, celebratory project. And how might the gallery space allow for these manifold and contradictory sentiments to arise? Perhaps the museum is the only possible space to properly house a queer countermonument, an artwork that works as an historical redefinition, an exercise in reflection on forgotten bodies, and a temple where we might grieve and learn to sublimate a continuous stream of human losses.

Paul Chan once suggested in a conversation with curator Helen Molesworth that dance is about “what it means to have a body and how it can fall apart—how it can all go wrong and we still have to go on”  (40). The inevitability of the body’s collapse and its simultaneous absorption in the urgency of the moment allows it to participate fully and consciously in the project that life most pressingly demands: that of going on. Chan continues: “Going on is a kind of dance wisdom, I suppose, and I think it’s a wisdom that warns against the idea that we can ever be whole” (40). The queer countermonument must necessarily warn against a false wholeness, its disruption of linear temporality and its clear-eyed embrace of latent bodily desire affirming that the only absolute truth is brokenness, and that within such fragmentation lies an indescribable beauty accessible to those willing to perform and witness it. To read Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform) as a countermonument provides an opportunity to engage its multivalent art-historical, pleasurable, and mournful projects in the cultivation of a new historical attitude that allows for an embrace of both the rupture and the potential healing offered by the dancing body and the ghosts it leaves behind.

Works Cited

Castiglia, Christopher, and Christopher Reed. If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2012. Print.

Birns, Nicholas. “Ralph Lemon’s Counter-Memorials//2005.” Dance. Ed. André Lepecki. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press & Whitechapel Gallery. 2012. Print.

Botton, Alain De. Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. New York: Pantheon, 2012. Print.

Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Luciano, Dana. Arranging Grief: Sacred Time and the Body in Nineteenth-century America. New York: New York UP, 2007. Print.

Molesworth, Helen Anne. “A Conversation between Paul Chan and Helen Molesworth.” Dance/ Draw. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Stages.” Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York UP, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Schulman, Sarah. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print.

Vogel, Shane. ”By the Light of What Comes After: Eventologies of the Ordinary,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. 19.2 (2009). Special Issue: Between Psychoanalysis and Affect.

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