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.- Simon Watney
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.-Michel Foucault
In a blog post entitled, The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation, I discussed a black and white photograph by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled from 1991. The image depicts an empty bed consisting of 2 pillows, a sheet and rumpled top sheet. For Gonzalez-Torres, me and many others this image is a representation of AIDS that at first glance expressed simply and strongly mourning, loss and death. The image is a memorial to those who have died in the epidemic and indeed, the work was a personal memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.
But, this photograph is more than just an elegy to Ross and the many others who have died. By not actually depicting a body within the work, (it is merely indicated by the depressions in the 2 pillows) I argued that the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was in the words of art historian and critic Douglas Crimp not only an act of mourning, but also militancy. This simple, quiet image challenges, resists, subverts and exposes the paradigmatic representation of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when homosexuality and AIDS was routinely and viciously conflated within culture. The dominant image of the disease at that time was a homosexual man, alone, gaunt, covered with Kaposi sarcoma lesions, a victim of his own perverted desires. A photograph of Donald Perlman from 1988 by Nicholas Nixon exemplifies this prevailing depiction. In contrast, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, by refusing to represent the body or bodies with AIDS is a work of cultural activism which engaged and undermined the authoritative AIDS discourse operative at the moment of its production.
A photograph by AA Bronson entitled Felix, June 5. 1994 depicts another Felix dead on his bed. (This post has been updated. When it first appeared, I mistakenly thought the Felix of the Bronson piece was Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Thankfully a reader pointed out my mistake. This Felix is Felix Partz, a Canadian artist and member of the art collective General Idea as was Bronson and Jorge Zontal. General Idea pioneered conceptual and media-based art and were active from 1967-1994.)
Felix, June 5, 1994 appears in the current show at the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture; it is a troubling and fitting pendant to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled of 1991. Both are memorials. Both are about death and loss. Both are about AIDS. And both are about resistance to the dominant fiction’s AIDS paradigm. But, while Untitled is lyrical and almost romantic in its pristine quality and simultaneously an image of revolution and militancy, the Bronson photograph is gruesome in its direct and unflinching portrait of death. But this photograph is not a depiction just any death, but death from AIDS and all the horror that having such a disease once entailed (and still does for some) before the advent of new drug therapies.
Bronson who was also Partz’s partner at the time photographed Felix a few hours after his death. The image is to a degree staged. As Bronson states, “He is arranged to receive visitors…” He is lying in bed wearing a pair of black and white bull’s-eye print pajamas which are too big for his wasted body. The oversized pajamas emphasize how much his physique has been withered and ravaged by AIDS. His face and hands, the only part of the corpse visible, are wizened and shriveled; the skin is tight and stretched over the bones underneath. His eyes are open in a dead stare. He looks at me. Apparently, his skin had shrunk so much from extreme wasting that his eye lids could not be closed. His mouth is parted showing his teeth as if he is taking a breath or about to speak. It is a horrific image.
He is surrounded by vibrant and vivid color- a yellow, blue, red and purple pillow, a multicolor sheet with an egg like pattern, a red and black plaid blanket and a grey, white and black striped blanket. The vibrancy of all of this color stands in marked contrast to the stillness of the devastated body of the artist, to its lifelessness. Death is not colorful; it is utter black.
Felix is surrounded by his favorite objects: the TV remote control, a tape recorder and cigarettes. This inclusion of cherished objects reminds me of an Egyptian tomb that is filled with items that the inhabitant of the tomb will need in the afterlife to survive and enjoy their new existence. These things around Felix make the viewer feel that he was just watching TV, he was just recording something, he was just having a smoke. One second you are alive and the next you are not.
When I first saw this photograph it terrified me and I could not really look at and return the artist’s gaze that had captured me in its dead stare. What struck me most, is how gruesome he looked- a skeleton covered with taut skin revealing the bones underneath. Where was the creative, handsome Felix Partz in this body?
As I viewed this image, I remembered seeing the other Felix, Felix Gonzalez-Torres years ago in the early 90’s speak at a conference on fantasy at the New School in New York City. I don’t quite remember what this Felix talked about, but I do remember his quiet, unassuming demeanor as he spoke, his dark hair and his good looks- a sweet face and an appealing body. He was smart and talented, producing works that were conceptual, lyrical, romantic even, but always pervaded by a sense of longing, loss and ending. He would die from AIDS in 1996 and if he was HIV+ then, I did not know it, but he did not look or act sick.
The contrast of the photograph of this Felix in my head and the the depiction of Felix Partz in the Bronson photograph was shocking and it made me cry. It was if I seeing Partz dead made me finally realize that the other Felix was really dead too. I mean I knew Gonzalez-Torres had died from AIDS in the mid 1990’s, but the Bronson image confronted me with the reality of that fact and it made me feel raw and emotional as if both Felixs had just died. At that moment I mourned their loss and rejected it at the same time, refusing to look too long at the terrifying image, refusing to accept the reality of their death from such a horrible disease. (Did Felix Gonzalez-Torres look like Felix Partz on his death bed?) But even at that moment I knew I had to write about this image and understand my relationship to it and why it affected me so greatly. I had to allow it to speak its truth to me.
Almost always when confronted with a photograph that grabs me deeply, I turn to the work of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida to make sense of my feelings and reaction. While Barthes’ work on photography is theoretical, critical and intellectual it is also replete with emotion and is in the end profound. It allows me to intellectualize an image and then find out what about that image twists me in the pit of my stomach.
In Camera Lucida Barthes denotes 2 classifications for photographs- those image that belong to the studium and those images that belong to the punctum. The studium is the historical, social and cultural meaning of the photograph; it is denotation. The punctum on the other can be a small detail within the photograph that pierces the viewer, undermines the studium and takes the viewer to a place beyond language, beyond culture to the realm of the pre-Oedipal. It is connotation. Barthes further develops the punctum to be the essential meaning of photography- that-has-been. He states:
…every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent…Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation…I call “photographic referent” not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before a lens, without which there would be no photograph…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography…the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: That-has-been…
The that-has-been is the profound meaning of photography that the viewer cannot escape or deny and that while simple and direct is a completely radical and unnerving revelation. I look at the Bronson photograph and I cannot deny the dead body of Felix Partz. The studium of the image is AIDS, the effects of this disease, the wasting etc., and also fashion- the bedding of a particular moment in the 90’s in a house of 2 gay men. It is a historical image that denotes the fate of many of those individuals who contracted HIV+ before there were effective drug therapies.
The punctum of the photograph on the other hand is the dead staring eyes of the artist. It is the detail of the image that as the viewer, I cannot escape. The patterns and the colors that surround him are all subordinated to his eyes and his lifeless gaze. Felix looks at me and you and fixes us in his gaze firmly, tightly as tight as his stretched skin. We are in the grip of Death. Indeed, the connotation of the photograph is death, the finality of life. The punctum of a photograph, Barthes says, pierces or cuts the viewer; here it eviscerates the spectator. I am dead; there is nothing else except photographs of me alive and now one of me dead- testaments to the that-has-been. And as viewers of this photograph, you and I are taken not so much to a beyond of the pre-Oedipal, but to a beyond of nothingness, of death from which there is no escape, no return, no angels, no trumpets, no white light.
I cried when I saw this photograph, not only for both Felixs, but for all the people I love in my life that will also die one day sooner or later and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
As Barthes eloquently states:
With the Photograph we enter into flat Death. One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain: “You talk about Death very flatly.” -As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude! The horror is this: nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, (Here Barthes is speaking about his mother) nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it. The only “thought” I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of “nothing to say.”
For Barthes, all photographs are a sign of death. The people in them so alive are in many cases already dead or will of course die eventually. Every photograph reminds us of our own mortality although we choose to ignore and deny it. The Bronson image of Felix Partz dead simply literalizes the inherent nature of the photograph which Barthes describes in contemplating the image of his own mother. While other photographs express death for Barthes, their subjects of people alive allow us at least to refuse to believe in their death and our own mortality. In contrast the Bronson photograph makes us look unflinchingly upon death; it does not allow us to deny that death comes one day for all of us.