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.
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.
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.
EXCLUSIVE: Gabriel Orozco discusses the process behind his sculpture Mobile Matrix (2006), a permanent installation for the José Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City.
Gabriel Orozco’s sculptures and photographs disrupt conventional notions of reality. Drawing our attention to slips in logic, philosophical games, and hidden geometries, Orozco uncovers the extraordinary aspects of the seemingly everyday. His use of humble materials and means (graphite on bone, a ball of clay, a 35mm camera) engages the imagination through its disarming simplicity and intimacy.
ART21: How did the Mobile Matrix (2006) project for the José Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City come about?
OROZCO: The new building for the library was a major project for the National Institute of Fine Arts and the Ministry of Culture in Mexico. They thought it would be great to have something in the building like an artwork. They called me and I told them I would like to see the building, but I would wait until the construction was a bit more advanced and then see if I get an idea that I think could work.
When they held a competition to make this building, it was all over the newspapers and it was a strong competition. I met with the architect that won the competition, Alberto Kalach, who I didn’t know before. He’s a well-known architect in Mexico, just a little bit older than my generation. We’ve since become good friends.
When the building was finally ready, I went. And when I was there, walking in, I liked it very much. It’s an interesting, open space with all these hanging bookshelves. It’s quite an impressive, monumental library. I had a couple of ideas, and one of these ideas was to have the skeleton of a whale in the center. Somehow it was more like an image than an idea. It came to me like a very clear image of this floating whale in the center of the bookshelves and the library. So that’s what I proposed.
Everybody loved it from the beginning. But whales are protected, right? There isn’t a way you can buy a whale skeleton. You have to either get a copy — a cast, a reproduction — or nothing. There isn’t a market for whale skeletons, at least in Mexico. It’s forbidden. But the fact that this is a national library belonging to the government, it makes it easier because I could just borrow the skeleton from our coastline. It became like an act of preservation, to put it in the hands of the library that belongs to all Mexicans, to the people.
ART21: What was the process of excavating the skeleton like?
OROZCO: When the project was approved, I didn’t have that much time to complete it before the building was finished. So I put together a team. I called a friend who was the director of the Museum of Natural History in Mexico and I said, “I need a whale skeleton. Do you think we can get one? How do we do it?” And he said, “Okay…let me make some phone calls.”
Because we were working for the Ministry of Culture, it was easy to get access to some government offices. We called the director of the National Park in Baja California, which is one of the three major national parks in Mexico. It’s a sanctuary for whales, which is why it’s one of the most famous. We traveled there, my friend from the museum and I, in a team of six. We arrived at a village, and from there we had to take a boat to the beach. There was absolutely nothing there but thirty-five kilometers of sand dunes. It was almost like a science fiction trip because we were on these motorcycles, riding in the dunes, looking for skeletons in this amazing landscape.