Essays

Falling in Love with a Felix Gonzalez-Torres Go-Go Dancer

During a recent visit to David Zwirner, I was transfixed by the dancer performing on a Gonzalez-Torres sculpture, so I decided to track him down.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), wood, light bulbs, acrylic paint, and Go-Go dancer in silver lamé bikini, sneakers, and personal listening device; overall dimensions vary with installation; platform: 21 1/2 x 72 x 72 in (Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, on permanent loan from a private collection; © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), wood, light bulbs, acrylic paint, and Go-Go dancer in silver lamé bikini, sneakers, and personal listening device; overall dimensions vary with installation; platform: 21 1/2 x 72 x 72 in (Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, on permanent loan from a private collection; © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation)

It was the squeaking of the shoes that caught my attention. I knew exactly what was going on, and that the pale blue platform which I had seen empty a minute earlier was now occupied. I quietly rushed through the gallery to the small room where I saw him.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), wood, light bulbs, acrylic paint, and Go-Go dancer in silver lamé bikini, sneakers, and personal listening device; overall dimensions vary with installation; platform: 21 1/2 x 72 x 72 in (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), wood, light bulbs, acrylic paint, and Go-Go dancer in silver lamé bikini, sneakers, and personal listening device; overall dimensions vary with installation; platform: 21 1/2 x 72 x 72 in (all photos and video by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated otherwise)

Upon walking in, I froze and stared. He danced, in a silver lamé bikini, mirrored sunglasses, white socks, and tennis shoes. His glasses reminded me that silver is a mirror, and I saw myself in him, in his shiny briefs. His body moved across the small platform with authority and confidence, as he held his iPhone in hand and techno filled his ears. The platform was completely his; I couldn’t have imagined anyone else on it. His bleach blond buzzcut, which reminded me of Eminem, complemented the small gold gauges in his ears and the yellow earbuds. The squeaking shoes, now only a few feet from me, were shrill, like the sound of a cat who has been stepped on; but there was no aggression in his dance. Though he danced like I imagine any go-go boy to dance, I moved through the cliché and saw him as an individual. Each movement of his body was decidedly him, sexy without trying to be. I shifted to the floor without thinking, and sat cross-legged as his body slowly began to glisten, damp with sweat. He might have danced for 15 minutes, or maybe an hour — time was elusive. I watched his entire performance, seldom even blinking. Eventually, he hopped off the platform, went upstairs past a little rope, presumably to the David Zwirner offices, and was gone. Was I being creepy?

I had read plenty about “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and had watched videos on YouTube of the performance many times. But something about seeing this guy in person stayed with me. I wanted to know his name, his occupation (was he a dancer by trade?), his thoughts on the work. Why was I so drawn to him?

After searching on Instagram for about a half hour, it became clear that this guy wasn’t dancing very often. Other dancers appeared frequently and were tagged by friends, but he evaded me. Eventually though, I found him, and sent him an email with the subject: “my favorite dancer.” His name is Ben.

Ben Ross Davis, an artist himself, was in Berlin when we finally connected, so we decided to video chat.

“Do you remember me?” I asked. I positioned my phone at a flattering angle and closed the curtains halfway, in order to get even, diffused light on my face. He said the audio was a bit patchy, but told me: “You look good.” My heart rate rose even though I knew he was talking about the image quality.

He didn’t remember me. “I don’t know if I remember particular faces like that,” he said. “When I first approached it I decided to not make eye contact with people because I wanted to focus on channeling the piece and the music, almost for myself.” I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed, hoping that the moment he saw my face on the screen he might remember how I was transfixed by him, might have connected with me a bit. But I had underestimated his own connection with the piece, with the history of Gonzalez-Torres’s work, and the magic and weight that come with participating in that context.

The author's collection of candies from Felix Gonzalez-Torres works (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The author’s collection of candies from Felix Gonzalez-Torres works

Gonzalez-Torres often talked about the important role of the public in his work. “I need the viewer … I need public interaction,” he told Tim Rollins in a 1993 interview. “Without the public, these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work … to help me out, to take responsibility, to become part of my work, to join in.” I have taken pieces from his piles of candy several times. I always eat one and save one, and now I have a small collection of candy, a museum of my own, from seven different works of his. (Recently, ants took a liking to them, so they now sit in an airtight jar.) I have felt the romance and tension of participating in Gonzalez-Torres’s work many times, the reverence of joining in, the connection with the artist (or the illusion of such). There is no way to passively view these works; to see them is to participate, to choose to engage or not engage. But the go-go platform is unique within his practice because it adds another layer of audience or public, an additional responsibility. Between the institution and the viewer is a third party, the dancer, who completes the work as much as the viewer. This threesome is complicated, because all parties show up with very different but equally crucial responsibilities and roles.

Davis agrees that watching is an active gesture. Deciding how long to stay, where to stand, how close to get, whether to take a photo or not, are all decisions that become a kind of negotiation or, as Davis says, an interaction.

Seeing the dancer — like really looking — is an active decision, one that I made. “Initially, I didn’t want to insert too much of myself within the piece, but then as I got a bit more comfortable, I felt like it was a bit important for me to insert part of who I am into the work,” Davis said, discussing his eventual inclusion of the mirrored glasses he had made. But to not insert himself would have been impossible anyway; how could I not see his tattoo of a Snellen eye chart on his bicep, the other tattoo of a magnet on the inside of his forearm (which I couldn’t make out while he danced but later identified on FaceTime), or the mole on his left butt cheek? When we talked, I learned that in addition to techno mixes, he even danced to his own music at times. “I made [the song] for myself in a lot of ways, like as a catharsis in a way, and to make me move, so it worked really well actually,” he said.

Perhaps this individuality is what really attracted me. Gonzalez-Torres made a work that fully relies on a “type” — all the dancers are male, athletic, attractive, most with a few tattoos and very little body hair (but some) — but also allows for total individuality when you scratch the surface. Even the schedule of dancing was personalized, determined by each individual dancer according to his availability. “The piece itself was completely up to the dancer, so I could basically come and go any of those days, as I wanted,” Davis said. “You can come down for 15 seconds and leave, or you can dance for the whole time if you want.”

Screenshot of the author's video chat with artist Ben Ross Davis (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Screenshot of the author’s video chat with artist Ben Ross Davis

As I talked with Davis, I realized the piece was just as much for him, if not more so, than it was for me and the other viewers shuffling through the gallery. By design, Gonzalez-Torres’s work gives more the more that people experience it, literally being refilled in the case of the candy piles or paper stacks; there’s always more than enough.

“There were definitely people that I don’t think really understood it, and I think there were some people who were offended by it, and there were people who laughed, and then there would be people who would just sit there and hold their heart,” Davis told me. “The laughing and the fear, more or less, is just as important as the really intense intimacy, because I think that emotions are important, a gamut of emotions are important, and I think that’s cool that it affects people in different ways.”

When I asked him if he felt sexy, there was a long pause. “Um, sure. But also, I’m not really a sexy dancer,” he said. “I was just dancing the way I would normally dance, so I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to go on this platform and be super sexual and sexy,’ I just went on there and danced how I dance.” He’s wrong about not being a sexy dancer, but the point he was making is that he got to be himself up there, and that seems important. He compared the lamé briefs to an armor, which I interpreted as permission to be powerfully himself. He was confident but tender when he talked, in a way that seemed like the armor had stayed with him, or maybe he had it all along.

Gonzalez-Torres’s work has made an impact for many artists I know, especially those who are gay or queer. Gonzalez-Torres, a gay man himself who lost his boyfriend Ross Laycock to AIDS and then also died of AIDS just five years after creating the go-go dancing platform, had good reason to make work about loss. Yet within that was always a bit of life or hope, which I sometimes forget. I’m surprised by my joy and seduction watching the dance because his empty bed photographs, cheap candy piles, and stoic paper stacks are always more painful than pleasurable for me. The dance, despite the isolation it presents, reminds me of the good things — it reminds me of connection and love and the power of strangeness.

My boyfriend Fred was napping upstairs while Davis and I talked. When I asked if he’s gay, he said, “100%,” and when I asked if he has a boyfriend, he said he’s made the promise to himself while he’s in graduate school to focus on his work. Then we got into a conversation about the importance of love, the importance of connection, and we agreed that there are times when those things are easier to attain than others.

We hung up because my phone was dying, but I felt like I had a hundred more questions. (How did the gallery find him? Through a friend. Did he get to keep the shorts? Yes. Did it pay well? Well enough.) I went upstairs and woke up Fred and told him about the conversation. After talking at length with Davis, I decided that experiences related to Gonzalez-Torres’s work, though intimate and personal, are meant to be shared. His work has been called “viral” in the way it spreads out into the world, leaving the gallery or museum. “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) seems no different. The dances spread online as social media posts, allowing me to reach out and get a little closer, to Davis of course, but also, perhaps, to Gonzalez-Torres.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres continues at David Zwirner (537 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 14.

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