Catching Feelings

I’ve been trying to ignore all of the panic and mania surrounding swine flu, since as far as I know anxiety has not yet been proven to afford protection against infection and death. An article in yesterday’s New York Times, however, caught my attention, noting the ways in which Mexicans have become particularly marked by the stigma of the flu even though cases have appeared throughout North America and Europe. Apparently healthy Mexican travelers were placed under quarantine in China; several Latin American countries suspended flights from Mexico; groups seeking to limit Mexican immigration to the U.S. have been referring to the virus as “Mexican Flu” in the media.

What struck me about all of this is that it is nothing new. Remember the Gay Plague, anyone? What is important here is not the transmission of disease, but rather the transmission of affect: anxiety, fear, disgust. I drudged up NBC’s very first coverage of the “gay cancer” (1982), which had not yet been identified or named as HIV/AIDS. Right from the start “lifestyle” was named as the cause of the illness, a way of life as disease vector.

In contrast, a 1976 public service announcement from the CDC about swine flu emphasizes the ways in which anyone can catch it, and anyone can transmit it. We should all be scared into vigilance and personal responsibility.

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All of this brings me around to thinking about Felix Gonzalez-Torres, whose artworks involving stacks of posters or pieces of candy free for the taking enact the spread of a virus from a single source. His 1991 work Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA) perhaps most directly links the transmission of infection to the transmission of affect. As viewers take a piece of candy from the 175 pound pile (the weight of the artist’s lover Ross in health), they symbolically take a piece of the lost lover’s body as it wastes away at the hands of AIDS. They also take a bit of melancholy-tinged shiny sweetness, a communion with the beloved in joy and death.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), 1991

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA)," 1991

This morning I found my piece of gold-wrapped candy from an installation of this work. I still can’t bring myself to eat it. Maybe I can’t make the move from melancholia to mourning? I seem to be resisting the work’s designed disappearance. But then again, the work is also designed for constant renewal; the pile of candy is replenished to its original weight each morning. Perhaps if the work were permanently installed around the corner with its promise of a breath of life each day, I could take that sweetness and loss into my mouth.

Self-portrait with candy

My shiny piece of "Portrait of Ross" in LA


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