The Body in Felix Gonzalez-Torress Untitled, 1989
In 1989 Felix Gonzalez-Torres mounted “Untitled”, 1989, in New York City’s Sheridan Square. The site and date manifestation of the work commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion at the place of its occurrence. It issues a formal citation of the artist’s date pieces, rectangular photostats dominated by a dense, funerary black void, and accompanied by a compact series of white captions at the bottom of the image. The saturated blackness of the billboard functions as a screen onto which the spectator casts a range of images and associations that will have to pass through the threshold of text at the base of the image. For the date pieces, the glass in the frame works in concert with the opaque print to become a dark mirror, forcing the spectator to look upon her own body as it is projected across the photostat.
The spectator’s body is no less implicated in “Untitled”, 1989. Even when a body is not represented in Gonzalez-Torres’s work, in pieces like the billboard bodies remain crucial. As much as the spectator may project meaning and images onto and into the billboard, the captions on the billboard are also a hailing gesture. They conjure a fragmented history of queer legal subjection and resistance, reaching out to touch and hold onto bodies that resonate with (and are the product of) these histories. That it does so through legal references is critical.
Like “Untitled”, 1989, the law hails and names bodies. Yet it also serves as an agent of projection, transforming a body into a screen for law’s projections. When Oscar Wilde opted to remain in Britain and face charges of gross indecency, he became one of history’s first famous homosexuals, as the verdict was projected across and inscribed onto his body. Nearly a century later, the United States Supreme Court affirmed this process in the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick, which denied gays and lesbians a right of sexual privacy or autonomy from the law when it affirmed the constitutionality of anti-sodomy legislation. Finally, the text “Police Harassment 1969” references the material implications of the law’s projection onto the (criminally) queer body—conjuring not only conjuring the fateful police raid of the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of June 28, 1969, but also the broadening police harassment in queer, black, and brown life-worlds throughout the 1960s; what Langston Hughes and Nina Simone would describe as law enforcement’s “white backlash” against the mid-century freedom struggles of minority groups.
Placing “Police Harrassment 1969” in relationship to the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Gonzalez-Torres’s spectator may come to situate the Stonewall Rebellion within the broader context of uprisings (such as the 1968 Chicago, Washington D.C., and Baltimore Rebellions) occurring during the 1960s. To restore the Stonewall Rebellion to this context is to be reminded that it was the bodies of Puerto Rican, black, trans, and queer freedom fighters—like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson—at the front lines of the Stonewall uprising. “Untitled,” 1969, invites us to see the way in which the historical struggle for queer liberation has always been a struggle waged by black and brown bodies and occurring with, in the context of, and alongside, the broader freedom struggles of black and brown people.
A queer and queer-of-color body hailed by the billboard must pass across and through the captions at the bottom of the image in order to enter into the black expanse behind them. But a body becomes dense with the weight of the projections cast across it, getting entangled in the text (and thus the law) as it tries to move through the latter. A body is dense with significatory capacities in its own right, but it becomes even denser when meaning is projected onto it from the outside. Historically, the body of U.S. law has called upon the visual (aesthetic) differences of the bodies of people of color in order justify their exclusion from (or subordination within) the national body politic. Today, under regimes of racial profiling, black skin becomes a visual sign for criminal dereliction and disposability. Like the billboard, the body becomes a screen for aesthetic projection and decoding. In turn, white law wraps itself around the body so that being a gay man means becoming entangled in the network of laws (and of law’s history) that could produce a sodomite out of Oscar Wilde’s body, or criminalize Michael Hardwick for being a homosexual.
The funereal black of “Untitled,” has been interpreted to conjure the omnipresence of death for queer, black, and brown people during the height of the AIDS crisis. But we should also insist that it gestures, through the inclusion of “Police Harrassment 1969” to the ubiquity of legally sanctioned violence and death for black and brown bodies, especially those deaths that occur in encounters between people of color and the police. The emancipatory struggles that animated ’68 and ’69 remain as vital today as they were then, and as they were during the height of the AIDS crisis. An exploration of the billboard’s legal references in the present moment bear this out.
Take, for example, the afterlife of Bowers, overturned by the Supreme Court in 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas. Surely, between Lawrence and the recent triumph for marriage equality in Obergefell v Hodges, one could argue that the regulatory bindings of the law are slipping away from the gay and lesbian body. But this would ignore the way the law continues to remain entangled with trans and queer bodies, and especially trans of color and queer-of-color bodies. In the events leading up to Lawrence, Texas police stormed the bedroom of white John Lawrence and his black sexual partner Tyron Garner after an acquaintance called the police to report a black male on the premises with a gun. The mere suggestion of the presence of an armed black man gave law enforcement probable cause to invade the home. As a gay black man, TyronGarner’s remains entangled with the law as a dense site for legal regulation and exposure to the conjunctively racist and homophobic force of police harassment. While, in Lawrence, the court ultimately decriminalized sodomy, law enforcement’s fear of armed people of color remains a legal justification for police harassment in black and brown communities, and for the routine and often indifferent execution of black and brown people like Betty Jones, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and Rekia Boyd. The bodies of trans and queer people of color, youth in particular, are uniquely exposed to the racist, transphobic, and homophobic edges of the law. Take the case of unarmed queer Latina teenager Jessie Hernandez who was shot to death by Denver police on January 26th, 2015. Eight rounds were fired into the car (which police claim Hernandez was using as a weapon), three of which struck and killed her—a physical materialization of the law’s mortal projections not just onto but also into the queer-of-color body.
Is it too literal to note that the black background of the billboard is juxtaposed again with the white law enumerated at its base? The opacity of the image certainly invites us to imagine this blackness both as a zone of concentrated death or loss, but also a screen onto which we might project new images and possibilities of and for the body. To become tripped up in the white law running along the bottom is to be taken up in the legal entanglements that make our bodies into subjects of and for law. As if “Untitled”, 1989 might suggest that it will only be after we reconcile and undo the entanglement of white law across the queer body-of-color that we may be able to finally pass through the horizon and enter into the open, black zone of liberated possibility that lies beyond.
- Nina Simone. “Backlash Blues” on Nina Simone Sings the Blues. RCA Records. 1965. CD.
- See: In Re Ah Yup, 1 F. Cas. 223 (1878); Plessy V. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), Harlan, J., dissenting; United States V. Dolla, 177 F. 101 (1910).
JOSHUA CHAMBERS-LETSON is assistant professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America (NYU Press, 2013), winner of the 2014 Outstanding Book Award from the Association of Theater in Higher Education (ATHE), and is currently working on a book about the Marxism of minoritarian performance. Along with Ann Pellegrini and Tavia Nyong'o, he is a series co-editor of the Sexual Cultures series of NYU Press.