Candy-Coated Art Delights And Provokes

Gonzalez-Torres's sea of candy a treat for both eye and mind

Xinran Yuan

It’s typically a bleak emotional Siberia inside the Carpenter Center. I’ve never had a reason to expect anything besides the cold concrete walls of the main gallery here. And yet, defying their stark surroundings, hundreds of golden candies gleam upon the grey floor in front of me. Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni) is a brilliant surprise, finding appropriate context in Le Corbusier’s stark modernist complex.

The exhibition, curated by Helen Molesworth, Harvard University Art Museum’s new curator of contemporary art, runs until January 4, 2008.

“Untitled” is one of Felix González-Torres’s beloved “candy pours.” The toffees composing the piece shine like an expansive sea, shaped into a rectangle bounded by nothing but the grey floor. The weight of the candy is predetermined, but the curator is allowed to determine the dimensions of the pour.

I’m tempted to throw myself into it like a newly coronated prince into his gold coins, or at least to grab a greedy handful like Augustus Gloop in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” But instead I stand tentatively on the brink, unsure of what is allowed here. We typically see art as untouchable, and are required to keep a physical distance, if not an emotional one.

I shrink back as a professor walks by. “Take one!” he says, “they’ll be replaced.” Elated and relieved, I crouch down and pick up a piece, then unwrap the toffee and ingest the art. All the while, I feel small waves of my sacrilegious act crush down into my stomach.

Both rich and minimalist, “Untitled” embodies the themes of identity and mortality that run throughout his work. González-Torres, a Cuban-born American, remains known for his installations of everyday objects, like strings of lightbulbs and sheets of paper, displayed in multiples of their simple material beauty.

After 1988, González-Torres named all of his works “Untitled,” and frequently gave a second name in parentheses. “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni) has two parenthetical names, which both suggest the psychological dialogue between the viewer and the piece.

Placebos, typically sugar pills parading as medicine, only affect the body through the patient’s belief that the pill is an actual cure. A victim of AIDS, González-Torres was constantly facing thoughts of his own mortality. His work is both sensual and hopeful. The toffees have a placebo effect, changing the material candy into a more intangible and lasting connection between the viewer and González-Torres.

The second name in parentheses, “Landscape,” conjures an understanding of a landscape as endless and distant. Yet the mini-landscape is clearly a bounded quantity of candies, one that I was apprehensive to deplete. Viewers only feel comfortable taking pieces from the exhibition when they have faith that the candy will be replaced.

When the candy is eaten, a triangular relationship of dependency forms between the curator replenishing the toffee, the viewer consuming the work, and González-Torres’s overarching conception of the piece. Each element depends on the others for its own existence, and the candies form the material link between all three.

González-Torres presents these simple objects not to imbue them with significance so much as to expose the meaning already existing in their materiality. Their golden color, homogeneity, and edibility form an enchanting physical and mental link between creators and viewers that revels in being brilliant and hopeful—almost absurdly so.

Despite the mind tricks and the melancholy of depletion, the whole experience of “Untitled” (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni) is like being a kid; it captures just the perfect amount of wonderment. And although it lies on the floor, “lies” is far too passive a word. The work calls us to eat it, and in doing so, crosses the normal boundaries placed between art and public.

—Staff writer Elsa S. Kim can be reached at elsakim@fas.harvard.edu.