Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation


This essay was first written in 1994. It examines the work Untitled, 1991, a black and white photograph of an empty bed with 2 pillows, a sheet and a top sheet by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The photograph is a memorial to his lover, Ross who died of AIDS in 1991. The artist himself died of the disease in 1996 at the age of 42. Ross and Felix are just tw0 of the approximately 25 million people worldwide who have died from the disease since the “beginning” of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. This essay seeks to understand the Gonzalez-Torres photograph in the context of the dominant representations of AIDS circa 1990 and their conflation with homosexuality as well as how this work of art functions within that context as a site of subversion and resistance.

Does the Gonzalez-Torres still resonate in the same way in 2009. Perhaps now the representation of people with AIDS and HIV has changed in part to the availability of new drugs which allow people with the disease to live longer, healthier lives. Advertisements for AIDS/HIV drugs feature healthy looking individuals benefiting from the featured drug. (There is also a false sense that the disease is not as serious because of these new medications.) I would also cite here someone like Jack Mackenroth, a fashion designer, who is open about his HIV+ status and is also an advocate for people with HIV and AIDS. He displays a body of physical “perfection” and health in contrast to the earlier images of individuals with HIV and AIDS as self-inflicted disease ridden victims who are dangerous to the population at large.

But how much have things really changed? Recently, Mackenroth criticized The Oprah Winfrey Show for an episode about AIDS. In a recent letter to the show Mackenroth states, “I had another issue about the vilification of HIV+ people. I understand that the man who knowingly had unprotected sex with these women (the show guests)should be punished but I also think referring to an HIV positive person as a “loaded gun” is an inappropriate analogy. Many of us take the necessary precautions and maintain an undetectable viral load in our bloodstream, which makes us much less contagious. However there was no mention of this by the doctor and it left the audience with the idea that every HIV+ person is a lethal weapon. It’s a totally inaccurate, negative depiction.” This conception of the person with AIDS as both victim and threat has been a common one since the emergence of the disease and apparently continues today. How the disease and those who have it were and are represented is crucial and political. As the AIDS activist Simon Watney states, “Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.”


In 1991, the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres produced a closely cropped black and white photograph of his own empty bed with two pillows, a sheet and a rumpled top sheet. The work is untitled. Subsequently, in 1992 this image was featured in a Projects exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The Projects series provides a selected artist the opportunity to assemble an installation within one of the museum galleries. The installation of Gonzalez-Torres, however, did not remain within the confines of the cultural institution. The single over-sized photograph of the vacant bed was indeed displayed in the Projects gallery of MOMA, yet simultaneously this same image appeared on twenty-four billboards throughout New York City.

The photograph within the museum and on the billboards were exactly identical; although their dimensions vary slightly, all were approximately 10’5” long and 22’ 8” long. These twenty-four billboards were located in various neighborhoods, for example Second Avenue and East 97th Street in Manhattan and Third Avenue and East 137th Street in the Bronx which could not be considered as having a relationship to the art world of museums, galleries and collectors.

The quiet empty photograph on these billboards must have appeared as a strange intrusion within the cacophonous urban landscape of New York. It was displayed within a traditional space of advertising, but it was not attempting to sell any particular product which is indeed the normal and usual function of such an apparatus. There was not a text or caption which would ground the image and help the viewer read it. It was simply a photograph in black and white of a vacant bed containing two pillows, a sheet and a disshelved top sheet.

Furthermore, the image was located in areas which did not guarantee its recognition as a piece of art produced as part of a MOMA exhibition. An understanding of the image as a work of art would also not be secured even if some of the billboards were located in art world spaces like Soho or West 57th Street. Such comprehension of the billboards as art would perhaps be contingent on prior knowledge, knowledge circulated within the art world especially since the image does not betray a “signature” style that can be readily be attributed to Gonzalez-Torres even by those individuals who are familiar with his work.

Yet, the recognition or non-recognition of the image as a work of art did not and does not preclude it from actively producing meaning in conjunction with its spectators. Anyone viewing this picture on the various billboards would, I believe, be struck at first by its interruption and disruption of its urban context. The empty bed became a site of disjuncture within the city. The large billboard photograph appeared profoundly still and contemplative in comparison to the cacophony of New York, its sights, sounds, lights, colors, smells and faces which continually confront us as we move throughout the urban environment. Against this maelstrom of overstimulation, a silent image of an extremely private space emerged within the public realm of the city.

The opposition between this depiction and the landscape which surrounded it between the private and the public mirrors the opposition in the space of the object/idea bed itself. For not only is the bed a space of rest, sleep, birth, consolation, sexual pleasure and fantasy, it is also a place of loneliness, sadness, sickness, violence and death. The object/idea bed produces an endless chain of signifieds which are not limited or circumscribed in any way by the visual structure of the photograph itself. Except perhaps the depression in the two pillows which indicates a prior presence of two bodies (an indexical sign). nothing in the photograph’s signifiers direct or restrict the meaning we as spectators can construct from it.

The use of the photographic medium further enhances the multivalence of the image because within our culture the photograph is falsely and mythically understood as displaying an objective and transparent truth. As Roland Bathes states, “Certainly the image (the photograph) is not the reality but at least it is its perfect analogon and it is exactly this analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph.” Therefore, on the level of the medium itself, the image within the mythic realm of photography does not regulate or circumscribe meaning as for example in the case of a painting in which color, brushstroke. composition, the code of the picture serve to shape and position its signification.

The meaning of this image (as for all images) becomes activated and constituted by the viewer who is looking at it, yet perhaps the formative role of the viewer is greater in terms of the Gonzalez-Torres or at the very least the act of construction is made visible. Metaphorically, the white sheets and bed function like a blank screen onto which spectators project their own desires, fantasies, emotions. In addition, the fuzzy, hazy quality of the picture, its soft focus, seems to embody the role of the viewer in the production of meaning at the level of its medium. In a sense, the spectator brings the image into focus both visually and conceptually.

The signification of the photograph is only nominally directed by its placement within the object/idea/category bed because the meanings of bed are endless. Indeed, Gonzalez-Torres sees this polysemic quality as a central feature of his oeuvre. In relation to an earlier series of photostats which consisted of black backgrounds and random listings in white letters of historical events, some famous, some banal, the artist has stated, “The blank spaces served as a screen for people to project themselves into those events. I started making pieces to deal with specific, crucial issues, with how information is transformed into meaning.” As in the photostats, the billboards present information of the vacant bed whose meaning is activated by viewers from their own experiences.

When I saw the billboard of the deserted bed for the first time on West 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan, I conceived of the photograph as representation of AIDS. The bare bed bearing the trace of two bodies and the rumpled top sheet was for me about loss, mourning and death. I later learned that the work was in fact for Gonzalez-Torres a memorial to his dead lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991. The number of billboards, twenty-four, commemorates the date on which Ross died. For the artist and for me as well as I am certain numerous others this depiction represents AIDS.

ross_laycock_wovenland Ross Laycock 1984 Courtesy of Nick Dobbing,

Yet, how does the photograph represent AIDS? As a representation of the disease, does the image of the empty bed only signify the many deaths from the epidemic, the people who like Ross are no longer here? Is the photograph a visual elegy of those individuals who have already died? Or does the photograph critically interrupt and disrupt the mainstream discourse of AIDS, presenting us with a image which signifies in the words of art historian Douglas Crimp both “mourning and militancy”?

For me the Gonzalez-Torres does embody both “mourning and militancy.” It is both a personal elegy to the artist’s dead lover as well as a critical intervention which seeks to challenge, counter and undermine certain dominant representations of the disease which have been paradigmatic since its emergence in the early 1980’s.

The representational paradigm of AIDS consisted in the early period of the epidemic of images of gay men as helpless victims whose body exhibit the visible markers of their self-inflicted illness. From the very beginning, AIDS was equated with homosexuality and such an equation is still powerful even today although this is no longer and perhaps never was the reality of the disease. The British historian Jeffrey Weeks states:

On a world scale most people living with HIV and AIDS are not gay. Most are poor, black and many are women. But despite all the government sponsored education campaigns, the scientific papers and the documentaries, and common sense perceptions, AIDS and gayness are indissolubly linked. To be diagnosed HIV positive, to live with HIV disease, is to risk being diagnosed as homosexual.

The discourses of AIDS, HIV and homosexuality are linked, conflated, and reciprocally explained as well as defined by the body of the male homosexual and the visible representation of that body.

In this regard, what I find striking and fascinating about the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, if one chooses to read it as a representation of AIDS, is its conscious refusal to depict the (homosexual) body of the person with AIDS. Instead of an actual physical body, the artist uses an indexical sign of the depression in both of the pillows to denote the presence/absence of a body or bodies. On one level, the absence of the body is logical in a work which commemorates the death of a loved one, yet in the context of other representations of the body of individuals with AIDS, such an absence functions as a political act informed by the meaning of the (homosexual) body within culture.

By not picturing the (homosexual) body of the person with AIDS, the photograph signals the body as a cultural and political construction rather than a biological, natural and most importantly, neutral entity. In a sense, the photograph cannot depict the artist’s dead lover, Ross Laycock, or any body because within the discourse of AIDS that body cannot be neutral or simply personal in signification for it is already inscribed prior to the image with certain dominant definitions of AIDS, namely the promiscuous gay male who kills himself (and others) through his perverse sexuality. As Foucault reminds us, “The body is…directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out certain tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.

What is the function of the (homosexual) body within culture? What is its purpose when this body is conflated with AIDS and bears its marks on its surface? What signs is it forced to emit? In order to understand the function of the (homosexual/AIDS) body one must first consider why the diseased body in general is represented within culture. In his book, Disease and Representation, Sander I. Gilman concludes that the representation of the diseased body serves to demarcate and construct the border between healthy and unhealthy individuals. He calls this action “seeing the patient.” He states, “The act of seeing is the act of the creation of historically determined (and therefore socially acceptable) images that permit a distinction to be made between the observer and the Other.” Depicting the diseased body is act of containment, a containment which serves an ideological function.

The Gonzalez-Torres both in its visual structure and it mode of exhibition attempts to disrupt boundaries which can be seen as metaphorically destabilizing the demarcation between healthy and unhealthy in representations of AIDS. On the most basic level, the depressions in the pillow signal that any individual or individuals could occupy this bed and hence be affected by the disease.

Moreover, the white vacant bed can be read as a symbolic screen onto which the viewer projects her/his meaning (un)circumscribed with the infinite signifieds of the idea/object bed. Visually the image is not bound/ restricted by a frame which to some degree limits or directs meaning. The photographic cropping of the bed implies both its physical and conceptual structure lies outside of the image itself within the mind of the spectator (which itself is not free of ideology.)

In its placement on twenty-four billboards throughout the city in non-art contexts, the photograph breaks the frame of the museum as a determiner in our understanding of the picture. By placing an image of private space within the public sphere, Gonzalez-Torres indicates the very falsity of public/private, a falsity which has particular resonance for gay men in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Bowers vs. Hardwick decision of 1986. (In 2003 the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas invalidated sodomy laws in all fifty states. South Carolina’s law was still in effect at the time.)

By upholding South Carolina’s sodomy laws as constitutional the Court effectively abolished this distinction between public and private, stating that private sexual acts between consenting adults could be regulated by the state. This decision erases the border between public and private in a negative way and simultaneously serves to reestablish and strengthen the fictive division between the (homosexual) body and other (heterosexual) bodies. The (homosexual) body engages in specific acts, namely anal intercourse, which makes it different and which in the discourse of AIDS causes its own self-destruction. The Gonzalez-Torres photograph destabilizes these boundaries and through its symbolic association to Bowers vs. Hardwick of 1986 indicates how some boundaries are expended in order to maintain the more important binary of homosexuality/heterosexuality. But just as it infers the boundary of Bowers vs. Hardwick, the empty bed image problematizes that very border by refusing to depict the body with(out) AIDS.

Just as a border is constructed between the healthy and the sick, between homosexuality and heterosexuality in a specific historical and cultural moment, so too is the conception of the disease. The meaning of AIDS is produced rather than manifest in the physicality of the illness itself. Gilman states, “…the social reality (of disease) is constructed on the basis of specific ideological needs and structured along the categories of representation accepted within that ideology.” From its appearance in the early 1980’s AIDS was paradigmatically represented and constructed as a sexually transmitted disease rather than an illness of the blood.

Yet, AIDS was not simply produced as a sexually transmitted disease which could affect and infect everyone. Rather since the disease was first noticed in gay men, our homophobic culture produced an illness which was restricted to the (homosexual) body and its engagement in deviant sex. Therefore, not only was homosexuality conflated with AIDS, but the (homosexual) body itself was understood to be the very source of the disease. Although such a position is now medically untenable, such a definition is still pervasive within mainstream culture.

In his essay “The Spectacle of AIDS”, Simon Watney discusses the intersection and interrelationship of the (homosexual) body, AIDS and their appearance within the representational systems of the dominant culture. The (homosexual) body can emerge within culture only if identification with that body is definitively denied through the very strategies of its presentation. The homosexual, therefore, has and still is presented as deviant, perverse, sick, mentally unstable, lonely, etc. Watney concludes, “The homosexual body inescapably evidences a sexual diversity that it is its ideological ‘function’ to restrict.”

To position AIDS as a homosexually transmitted and originated disease, to make AIDS signify homosexuality, is another and perhaps the greatest way to effect the denial of the (homosexual) body while simultaneously making that body necessary ideologically. It is not surprising that AIDS was conflated with homosexuality in a period which was and is experiencing the destabilization of traditional constructs of gender and sexuality. Collapsing AIDS and homosexuality into one another asserts on some level that there exists a biological basis for same-sex desire, thereby helping to reaffirm and reestablish certain boundaries which were being challenged and revealed as cultural fictions. In this regard the (homosexual) body is essential to the maintenance of the hegemony and values of the dominant culture and is particularly useful in this purpose as one term in the equation (homosexual) body=AIDS. Watney writes:

The inestimable convenience of AIDS, reduced to a typology of signs that promises to identify the dreaded object of desire in the final moments of its own self-destruction. AIDS is thus made to rationalize the impossibility of the “homosexual body” and reminds us only of the dire consequences of a failure to “forget”…Hence, the social necessity of the “homosexual body.”

On one level, the fictious, yet ideologically essential (homosexual) body is represented in the imagery of AIDS as simply a vessel of disease responsible for its own death. Representations of AIDS in the media and public health advertisements and even in art world creations by such artists as Nicholas Nixon and Rosalind Solomon usually depict gay men as isolated victims who display the visual signifiers of their illness such as gaunt, emaciated bodies and more likely the lesions of Kaposi sarcoma.

A1 Photograph of Kenny Ramsauer 1986

A2Photograph of David Chickadel by Peter Sterling 1987

A3 Face video 1988 City of New York Department of Health

A4 Photograph of Donald Perlman 1988 by Nicholas Nixon

A5Garden, New York by Rosalind Solomon 1988

It is instructive to compare these images to representations of the so-called “innocent victims” of AIDS of which children are the most visible group in order to really comprehend visibly the vicious ideological work that is being produced by mainstream representations of AIDS.

A6 Photograph of Ryan White and Matthew Kozup and his mother

A7 Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services 1989

All of these images, but especially the paradigmatic depictions of the (AIDS/homosexual) body serve in the terms of Gilman to demarcate boundaries between diseased homosexual and healthy heterosexual. By refusing to represent his dead lover, Ross, Gonzalez-Torres resists and disrupts the boundaries established by the paradigmatic images of the (AIDS/homosexual) body and further signals not only the fictious nature of that body, but also that its appearance is meant to serve the ideological interests of the dominant culture and its complusory heterosexuality.

It is important to note the centrality of the photographic medium within these mainstream depictions of AIDS. Simon Watney contends that photography through its apparent transparency plays a vital role in establishing and naturalizing the ideology of AIDS. In its very physicality and the process of its production, photography is understood as objective and truthful within culture. In Image-Music-Text, Barthes states:

In the photograph- at least at the level of the message- the relationship of signifieds to signifiers is not one of “transformation” but of “recording”. and the absence of a code clearly reinforces the myth of photographic “naturalness”: the scene is there captured mechanically (the mechanized as a degree of objectivity)…the denoted image naturalizes the symbolic message (homosexual body=AIDS), it innocents the semantic artifice of connotation…nature seems spontaneously to produce the scene represented.

Yet while claiming to represent the truth about the epidemic (through photography), such representations of AIDS ignore the real material circumstances of people living with the disease such as new medical responses, variable life-expectancy and the ability of people with AIDS to establish organizations in order to provide support and assistance in the face of wide social and institutional indifference, especially in the early years of the disease.

How does one represent the material circumstances of AIDS, it many and changing “truths”? For Gonzalez-Torres the only way to represent AIDS was in a sense not to represent it. The photograph of the vacant bed refuses to depict the body indicated by the indexical sign of the pillow depression because within culture the body of AIDS is the (homosexual) body. Like Gonzalez-Torres, the artist Martha Rosler in her 1974-75 work, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, presents a series of photographs and texts in an attempt to represent the drunks who inhabit the Bowery in New York City.

bowery Martha Rosler The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974-75

As the title of the piece suggests the artist has little faith that her work can indeed represent the inhabitants of the Bowery. The photographs are images of the Bowery in which the body of the drunk is absent, but signaled through the sign of an empty bottle or bottles of liquor. The accompanying text presents words which are used to describe the state of inebriation. Similar to the Gonzalez-Torres, these photographs and texts, do not intend to represent the drunks of the Bowery, but rather it is an attempt to counter the dominant discourse about drunks and the means of representation (documentary photography) which is used to naturalize this discourse.

Speaking about mainstream images of drunks on the Bowery, Rosler states, “The buried text of photographs of drunks is not a treatise on political economy, on the manipulation of the unemployment rate to control inflation and keep profits up and labor’s demand down, on the contradictory pressures on the institution of the family under capitalism.” Instead such photographs are meant to position the drunk as a vile individual who has made a life choice and deserves punishment for it. These photographic depictions serve to naturalize and conceal the “buried text.”

The paradigmatic representations of AIDS functions in a similar way. The do not contend with or challenge a deeply homophobic. racist and misogynistic culture, but rather the picturing of AIDS has been a means by which the dominant culture maintains itself, notably in the conception that the (homosexual) body is responsible for its own demise. Furthermore, such pictures do not engage the complex material reality of people with AIDS in their attempt to define and represent themselves. Nor do these mainstream images confront changing medical treatments, governmental policies or even the changing definition of the disease itself.

Further discussing mainstream images of drunks, Rosler states, “If impoverishment is the subject here, it is more certainly the impoverishment of representational strategies tottering about alone than that of a mode of surviving. The photographs are powerless to deal with the reality that is yet totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.” In an identical fashion, images of people with AIDS are already “totally comprehended-in-advance by ideology.” In other words, representations of AIDS which depict men are constructed within the ideology of the epidemic in order to demonstrate the fictive, yet necessary (homosexual) body, a body that fulfills its own self-destruction. The Gonzalez-Torres must refuse to represent this body in order to escape the ideology of AIDS and signal the way in which it constructs the fantasmatic (homosexual) body to serve a particular ideological function.

Both the Rosler and the Gonzalez-Torres also attempt to counter the seemingly neutral transparency of the photographic medium. The already inscribed meaning of photograph posited by Barthes serves to naturalize the respective ideologies that the work of these two artists seek to counter by absenting the body which is the very subject of those belief systems. The respective works both exhibit a staged quality as if to deny their supposed transparency. Within the Rosler the position of the bottles exhibits this quality. Within the Gonzalez-Torres the pillow depressions seem to have been produced artificially rather than by an actual head. This staged quality in both works helps to counter the notion of photography as an objective representation of truth, a myth which is operative in the dominant depictions of people with AIDS and drunks.

Even at a time when “everyone is at risk for AIDS” the boundaries between healthy/unhealthy, innocent/guilty heterosexual/homosexual and the fictious, but necessary (homosexual) body are still central to the discourse of the disease. Thus, it would not matter if Gonzalez-Torres had produced the “bed” photograph in 1985 instead of 1991 or (perhaps even now in 2009?) because in each instance the representation of the body of his dead lover would have to assume the role and function of the mythic yet vital (homosexual) body within culture. (However, with the advent of life saving and prolonging medications is the image of the lesion covered homosexual body now confined to a historical moment before such drugs were available? Is this the new (homosexual) body of AIDS/HIV? Or is it an older (homosexual) body as people live longer with the disease?)

For example, the supposedly sympathetic and acclaimed movie Philadelphia maintains this fictive border and the (homosexual)body which is used to erect it in a very complex manner. To secure this boundary, the film produces other distinctions between homosexual men themselves. The Tom Hanks character in the film is the “good homosexual” because he believes in the traditional family and is involved in a monogamous relationship. He contracts the virus only when he violates these ideals (becoming a “bad homosexual”) and has anonymous sex in a pornographic theater. Within the movie the homosexuality of Hanks’ character is positioned as the source and cause of his own diseased, lesion marked body which is the representation of his body from the very beginning of the film. To emphasize this fact, the movie introduces an “innocent victim” of AIDS who was infected with HIV through a blood transfusion rather than non-monogamous sex.

The ideology of AIDS presents monogamy as the only viable model of sexual behavior in the face of the epidemic. However, as the AIDS activist Jan Zita Grover points out, “Such a model made any multi-partnered sex (at this point everyone not monogamous became promiscuous) no matter how unrisky in terms of its practices, appear intrinsically unsafe.” A public service ad from a 1987 AIDS prevention campaign produced by the Portland based advertising firm of Turtledove Clemens for use in both Oregon and Chicago clearly illustrates the monogamy model.

A9 The advertisement consists of a shadowy and darkened photograph of a portion of a disshelved bed whose occupant only reveals their feet and ankles. Various items of clothing (underwear, a shirt, socks a sweater) are strewn haphazardly around the bed. The main text of the advertisement reads, “One night stands can be murder.” Clearly within in the ad, promiscuity and sex (the one night stand) is simplistically equated with AIDS and subsequent and inevitable death. The combination of image and text conflate these meanings. The partially shown figure and the random clothing around the bed suggests a scene of recent sexual pleasure, but through the text the image is transformed into a space of violence and murder. murder through the transmission of HIV. The irresponsibility of the ad lies in its refusal to acknowledge not only the varying risks of different sexual acts, but also the crucial use of condoms which would interrupt its seemingly natural equation promiscuity=death as well its inverse monogamy=life. AIDS and sex must be seen to exist in a qualitative relationship rather than quantitative one.


By comparing the Turtledove Clemens AIDS prevention campaign ad with the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, one can discern more clearly the interrelationship between promiscuity, monogamy, homosexuality and AIDS as well as the centrality of the absence of the body in the Gonzalez-Torres if one chooses to read the image as a representation of AIDS. Since the beginning of the epidemic. the binary monogamous/promiscuous has been used to conceptualize the nature of the disease within popular culture. More importantly, this binary was and is mapped onto and conflated with the binary heterosexuality/homosexuality. Within the ideology of AIDS, to be homosexual was to be by definition promiscuous. Speaking of the use of the word “promiscuity” in relation to the disease with the media, Watney states:

The entire discourse of AIDS turns round the rhetorical figure of “promiscuity” as if all non-gays were either monogamous or celibate and, more culpably still, as if AIDS was related to sex in a quantitative rather than a qualitative way. Clearly journalists know that their readers are unlikely to be effortlessly monogamous or celibate, so we must conclude that the term “promiscuity is being employed to other purposes- as a sign of homosexuality itself.

The Turtledove Clemens ad through the caption “One night stands can be murder” equates multiple sex partners with AIDS and such an equation can signify homosexuality. The Turtledove Clemens photograph collapses anonymous sexual pleasure into death from AIDS. It must be seen as part of a system of representation which maintains and asserts the power of the dominant culture. The meaning of the ad is invested primarily within its caption. Without the caption the photo could conceivably signify the aftermath of sexual pleasure. In his essay “The Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes sees the caption as the way in which the meaning of the photograph is “anchored”. He states, “With respect to the liberty of signifieds of the image, the text has thus a repressive value and we can see that it is at this level that the morality and the ideology of a society are above all invested.

By not using a caption or even title, the Gonzalez-Torres photography recognizes the ability of the caption to enact a “repressive value”. particularly within the deeply homophobic culture of the United States. The Seattle prevention ad serves to reestablish and secure binaries and boundaries which the Gonzalez-Torres negates within its very structure.

Furthermore, other images of AIDS although captionless use the Kaposi sarcoma lesions to fulfill the repressive function of the caption. These types of images falsely assert that people with HIV and AIDS can somehow be detected by visual perception. It equates AIDS with death regardless of changing medical treatments or life-expectancy. Finally, such depictions by regarding people with AIDS as victims overlooks their own achievements in organizing support and services denied to them by the larger society.

Responding to the photographs of people with AIDS by the artists Nicholas Nixon and Rosalind Solomon, Grover contends, “These A4 photographs belong to no common debates on the representation of the PWA…They reflect no understanding of the complicated history of PWA’s attempts to name themselves, to assert their rights, or of the accumulated meanings surrounding mainstream media images that PWA’s struggle to oppose.” These images present a fantasy image of AIDS servingA5 to demarcate boundaries between healthy/sick, straight/gay, black/white while simultaneously ignoring the real material circumstances of people living with HIV and AIDS. Like the “documentary” photographs of drunks which the work of Martha Rosler seeks to oppose, these images claim to represent the truth of AIDS in purely visual terms through the falsely transparent medium of photography. They deny the actual reality of the disease.

How then does one represent the disease? Like the work of Rosler, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph acknowledges the built-in meanings of the photographic discourse as well as the ideology of AIDS and homosexuality within our culture. The photograph of the empty bed refuses to depict the body of the person with AIDS/HIV for this very reason particularly if that body can be made to fulfill the role of the fictive, yet necessary (homosexual) body within culture. As art historian Douglas Crimp has noted even images of the “healthy” gay body is overshadowed by the specter of AIDS. The continuing fight against the military ban on homosexuals must be seen as an attempt to substitute the “healthy” homosexual body for the diseased one. But even the gay bodies of All-American figures such as Joe Stefan cannot escape the shadow of AIDS or the insistent conflation of AIDS and homosexuality.

Thus, the political strategy of the Gonzalez-Torres photograph is to refuse to represent the body in order to counter and resist such a conflation and the very category of the (homosexual) body as well as to question a system of representation based upon transparency and whose subject is understood according to activist and art critic Craig Owens as “absolutely centered, unitary and masculine” and I would add heterosexual.

In his essay “Mourning and Militancy” Crimp discusses how AIDS cultural activism involves “a certain inability to mourn or a kind of fear of grief; an inability to deal with extreme illness and death.” As a representation of AIDS, the photograph of the deserted bed bearing the trace of the body or bodies who occupied it confronts this inability to grieve and presents a powerful elegy for anyone who has known someone that has died from the disease. Yet, while simultaneously an elegiac depiction of grief, this photograph is a political act, a work of AIDS cultural activism. By refusing to represent the body with AIDS, it critically engages and challenges the dominant representations of the disease. It is both a work of mourning and militancy.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Questions and Answers: Brief Encounter, Noel Coward and the Homosexual Author


The Great Within reader Holly asks, “To what degree do you think Brief Encounter reflects Noel Coward's own romantic experiences as a closeted gay man?"

Holly poses an intriguing question which had not occurred to me even though I have seen Brief Encounter several times. While I was aware of Coward’s homosexuality, I, as a gay/queer/vext viewer, of the new millennium did not connect his sexuality with the film’s narrative. The question then becomes could Brief Encounter have resonated with a homosexual viewer at the time of the film’s production and release?

On one level, Brief Encounter portrays a frustrated and forbidden desire between the two main characters, Laura and Alec. One could argue that this element of the story parallels the lives of homosexual men in postwar Britain whose desire was not only forbidden, but also, more importantly, illegal. Such a situation of criminality prevented (some or most) homosexual men from forming and maintaining close, intimate romantic relationships. Like Laura and Alec, love between 2 men was thwarted by society and its law. A homosexual viewer in 1945 might have felt this special connection between the film and his own circumstance.


Also, it is important to understand if Coward’s own sexual orientation was common (if not publicized) knowledge at the time of the film. If his sexuality was generally known, it could have further underlined the resonance a homosexual spectator felt upon seeing Brief Encounter, allowing this viewer to see beyond the text’s denotation to a level of homosexual connotation.

Finally, what does it mean to rely in part on the biographical information of the author (Coward) to understand Brief Encounter as having an allusion to homosexuality when that is not the very subject of the text itself? In an article about homosexuality and authorship entitled “Believing in Fairies: The Author and The Homosexual,” the film historian Richard Dyer attempts to answer such a question. He navigates successfully between the extremes of the Barthesian notion of the death of the author, which excludes a consideration of the author in the analysis of the text, and the political imperative of affirming the presence and voice of gay authors as well as the importance of such an identity in the production of a particular text. Dyer states:

What is significant is the author’s material social position in relation to discourse, the access to discourse they have on account of who they are…because they were lesbian and gay (and for this reason) they could produce lesbian and gay representations that could themselves be considered lesbian and gay, not because all lesbian and gay men, inevitably express themselves on film in a certain way, but because they had an access to, and an inwardness, with lesbian and gay sign systems that would have been like foreign languages to straight filmmakers. (Richard Dyer, “Believing in Fairies: The Author and The Homosexual” in Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories Gay Theories, p. 188.)

Therefore, to induce Brief Encounter to speak as a homosexual text one must not only rely on Coward’s own subject position as a homosexual man, his biography, but more importantly the meaning of that position at the particular historical moment of postwar Great Britain. How was homosexuality defined in the discourses of popular culture, the law and medicine in 1945? What about that particular historical moment allowed the narrative of Brief Encounter to speak to a homosexual spectator enabling him to make that text his own? And what was the outcome of this connection? Did it become in Foucault’s sense a “reverse discourse” or did film merely become a testament to the plight of the 1945 homosexual viewer? Further research is needed.

Thank you Holly for a great question.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Questions and Answers: Let’s Paint the Town a Glorious Red

10-20-2009 11;32;52AM (2) Postcard circa 1910

In order to increase my blog traffic and foster a greater dialogue between myself and readers, I am introducing a (humble) question and answer feature for The Great Within. I have to thank Chad, author of the blog Dukakis Hugging Moon Maiden for first thinking of this question and answer idea. Dukakis Hugging Moon Maiden is a wonderful blog about history (and Dr. Who) and I urge you all to have a visit.

While Chad’s question/answer feature is about history, mine will encompass any art historical queries you might have that are not satisfied by a Google search. Having a BA and MA in art history as well as time in a PhD art history program, I have a fair breath of knowledge about cultural production. I am strongest in the art of the Renaissance, 19th century French painting and early 20th century painting, sculpture and photography.

Furthermore, I have a strong background in studying the representation of gender and sexuality in all forms of cultural production, high and low. My particular strength is in the exploration of masculinity, homosexuality and homoeroticism in television, film, photography and mass culture.

Ask away and I will try to provide intriguing answers that will generate a wider discussion; I am sure I will learn as well and rethink some of my own assumptions and beliefs.

Cheers, Kelly

Friday, November 6, 2009

Queering the Image 5: Postcard of a Sailor

07-07-2009 01;29;58PM Postcard circa 1940’s

Like pears closely packed, the crowded crew mutually decay through close contact…Still more, from this same close confinement- so far as it affects the common sailors- arise other evils, so direful that they will hardly bear even so much as an allusion.  What too many seamen are when ashore is very well known; but what some of them become when completely cut off from shore indulgences can hardly be imagined by landsmen.  The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep.-White Jacket, Herman Melville, 1850.

Throughout history the sailor has occupied an ambiguous and liminal position in terms of sexuality and gender.  Men at sea, far away from land, living in close quarters fostered a myth (and a reality) of situational same-sex desire and practice.  This sailor fantasy/actuality has often been represented in the realm of high art.  The 19th century novella Billy Budd by Herman Melville, the erotic watercolors by American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935)  and Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin are just a few examples.

The sailor postcard in this post is a humble and disposable piece of paper ephemera in the tradition of sailor myth, reality and desire.  The image depicts a sailor in his appropriate uniform along with a shirtless female companion in a tattoo parlor.   They are perhaps a romantic couple seeking to immortalize their love with ink impressed into skin.

07-07-2009 01;24;42PM Yet, it is not the sailor who will be getting a tattoo as would usually be the case.  Instead, the postcard pictures a role reversal of both action, gender and sexuality.  The female figure wearing only a bra, tight skirt and high-heeled shoes sits on a stool and states to the incredulous tattoo artist, “I want his picture tattooed right here on my chest.”  The text and image is supposed to be funny and a bit racy, but there is a wider meaning beneath the humor.


In Tattoo published in 1933, the author Albert Parry states,"a tattooed sailor wants to be respected for his ‘heroism’ with which he endured the pain of tattooing.  All tattoo marks are to him symbols of fearlessness and toughness.”  The tattoo is a sign of masculinity, but in this postcard it is the woman who  commands the masculine position by desiring to get a tattoo of her male romantic companion on her female body.

07-07-2009 01;29;58PM This reversal of gender is underlined by the physical difference between the figures.  The standing sailor assumes a position reminiscent of the traditional female nude within Western art.  His posture and physique are soft, feminine and easily apprehended by the viewer.  His eyes are closed and downcast.  He sports a smile of embarrassment and crosses one foot over the other as if he understands his role as (feminine) object within the scene.

Compared to the wide muscular shoulders of the female figure, the sailor’s are hunched, rounded and curved.  Her perky breast with prominent nipple and taut buttocks stand in contrast to the meandering outline and flatness of male figure.  And what is most strange is the position of the navy man’s hands.  He covers his genitals like a traditional female nude in art.   His action of covering is a disavowal of the Phallus, a rejection of his masculinity.  Instead in  the postcard, the female figure possesses the Phallus and assumes the masculine role in relation to the sailor.  She is erect, although seated.  He is supine, although standing.  Indeed, she is sexualized within the image, but her male companion is the (erotic) object.

Part of the sailor’s appeal as an erotic object  is his uniform.  It is a symbol of masculinity and can function as a sexual lure and fetish, (for women and men) but it too like the sailor himself (real and imagined) does not possess a stable expression of gender and sexuality.  It serves to further foster the ambiguity of the soldier of the sea.

07-07-2009 01;23;26PM This sexual nature of the uniform was clearly understood by the wearer.  In a letter to Yank magazine in 1945, a sailor named William E. Donohue writes, “For almost six years that splendid outfit has clunked the gaps in my wan personality and enabled me to play at least a semi-wolf role…the circus-performance costume reveals what goes to make the man.”  The uniform imbues the wearer with a certain sex appeal which he might not possess  without it.

But, poor William also has to contend with the weight of history which sees the sailor and his uniform as always a potential object of same-sex desire and practice.  He may have been a semi-wolf, but he was also the prey.  Just consider how the traditional sailor outfit is a standard in clothing  for women and children.  The uniform may “make the man”, but it’s masculine meaning is far from stable.  The postcard must use the sailor in its joke instead of a marine for example,  because the seaman has already been hailed by the dominant culture as ambiguous in regards to gender and sexuality.