I’m sitting in front of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled light sculpture in the Modern & Contemporary gallery of the UMMA. I’ve seen this piece a hundred times, but every time I’m with it offers something more to me. Especially this year, as I’m seeing it for the first time with one of the lights out, it has become particularly emotionally charged.
Right now, it’s windy and cold and rainy outside. It is overcast with clouds filling up every inch of the sky. The walls of the gallery are a continuation of the color of the sky outside. I can just image these two light bulbs, up in the sky alone on a day like today. One would illuminate the atmosphere around it, while the other would blend in with the clouds.
Two months ago, the lights could have been illuminating the world together. But now, one is burnt out and the other is left to go on alone.
The lights represent Gonzalez-Torres and his partner. They were both infected with AIDS and the inevitability of one of them extinguishing before the other was as certain as a light bulb eventually burning out.
The first time I saw one of the bulbs burnt out, I actually got teary eyed. Normally, I don’t have such an emotional response to art. I appreciate it for its aesthetic qualities, but not so much for the emotional ones. Since seeing it for the first time, every time I have passed it since, it has evoked less of an emotional response. It’s almost like when you go to a funeral and the burial is unbearable, but every time you return to the cemetery, the loss becomes a little bit easier to cope with.
I, however, am an onlooker. I am not intertwined as one of the partners. So while my emotions may be triggered only when I see the piece, the loss of the loved one is forever apart of one of the lovers. They are forever connected, touching, together, but in different states.
The light went out, but the shell is still there. This leaves me unsettled. Rather than loosing the body of his loved one, he has lost the spirit (light). In reality, we lose the body, but not the spirit.
I’m left to wonder if Gonzalez-Torres lost his partner while he was with him. If his partners light went out, his body went cold, and Gonzalez-Torres was left next to him, holding his hand while he was still warm and full of life. Witnessing life escape a loved one sounds like the most horrible experience one could endure. In that moment, all you are left with is a body. The spirit is gone and only over time can you get a remnant of it back, but never shining to its full degree.