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Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died at the age of 38 from AIDS-related complications, allegorized the cycles of deterioration, loss, and renewal by involving the spectator in the gradual depletion of his works. Some aspects of Andrea Rosen and David Zwirner’s ongoing online exhibition, in which selected participants recreate his 1990 installation “‘Untitled’ (Fortune Cookie Corner)”, resonate with the tenets of the Cuban-American artist’s oeuvre. In May, the galleries asked an artfluencer-studded coterie of 1,000 curators, critics, and other cultural actors in different parts of the world to stage a pile of fortune cookies at locations of their choice and allow passersby to take pieces, refurbishing the mountain halfway through the exhibition’s six-week run and documenting “how the work ebbs and flows.”
The call to collective action, expansion of the work beyond a single exhibition space, and an insistence on consumption, allowing for its visible diminishment, are integral to both this installation and to Gonzalez-Torres’s conceptual project at large.
Why, then, does the endless scroll of stylized fortune cookie mounds that the exhibition’s emoji-dotted Instagram hashtag unfurls provoke the unmistakably familiar malaise of a gimmick? The Los Angeles Times’s Carolina Miranda — a prominent arts journalist who received an invitation, but donated the cost of the cookies to a charity instead — said that the project’s staging in the midst of the coronavirus, during a nationwide unemployment crisis, struck her as “tone deaf at best and foolhardy at worst.” Emily Colucci of the online publication Filthy Dreams called it “a pitch-perfect representation of the monetary and social capital-obsessed society” that part of the art community has become.
That the exhibition is predicated on exclusivity, with select members of the proverbial Art World formally “invited” to participate, lends it an additional layer of glossy, commercial sheen. (In response to Hyperallergic’s inquiry regarding the selection process, a David Zwirner spokesperson said, “The 1,000 invited participants represent a diverse but specific international group that includes writers, curators, artists, colleagues, friends of people involved in past presentations of Felix’s work, friends of Felix, and people who have posted Felix’s work on Instagram, among others.”)
The qualms of Miranda, Colucci, and other critics are myriad. There are the very practical concerns of sourcing hundreds of fortune cookies during a global pandemic, with online ordering channels and delivery workers overwhelmed (the gallery did not provide the cookies; the chosen activators had to get their own). There is the trouble of installing an artwork meant to be public and participatory while lockdowns pose real obstacles to viewer engagement. And there is the question of optics — though Rosen assures that 240 fortune cookies, the minimum required to participate, cost no more than $20, food shortages and financial strife exacerbated in the last few months inevitably make the installations feel indulgent.
Another quandary, one perhaps less discussed, is the work’s staging amid a rise in violence and discrimination toward people of Asian descent, who continue to be unjustly targeted and senselessly blamed for the pandemic. Stop DiscriminAsian (SDA), a coalition of Asian diasporic artists and arts workers formed this year in response to such incidents, believes the timing of the piece was “ill-thought out.”
“Beyond whatever disservice it does to FGT’s legacy as an AIDS activist, the artwork as a curatorial endeavor seems curiously ignorant that one could make a connection between the purported Chinese-ness of the cookie and the racialized nature of COVID-19,” SDA told Hyperallergic.
“‘Untitled’ (Fortune Cookie Corner)” is not, of course, inherently racist — as SDA points out, the cookies did not even originate in Chinese cuisine, invented in Japan and popularized in the US — but its reappearance at a moment of anti-Asian sentiment, and with little context, seems misguided. In a Facebook post he titled “Unfortunate Cookies,” the New York-based artist Javier Téllez brought up these concerns, arguing that “the exhibition reinforces the xenophobic discourses that associate the coronavirus with race and ethnicity.”
The current demonstrations against police brutality, prompted by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, have brought conversations about race-based violence to the fore. They have added to an already charged environment where the US President has racialized discussions of the coronavirus, calling it Kung Flu, Chinese Virus, and other terms that organizations such as Human Rights Watch have flagged as fanning the flames of anti-Asian incidents.
“It’s probably not clear to many non-Asian adjacent participants in the art system that Chinese restaurants are being defaced by racists and that their employees are fearful of their personal safety,” says SDA.
“As such, it would be nice to see the enthusiasm for ‘Untitled’ (Fortune Cookie Corner) be matched by an enthusiasm for Chinese food take out as Chinese restaurants around the country are closing at disproportionate rates due to xenophobia, which has caused such a severe drop in business that it has prompted social media campaigns.”
“Dear exhibition participants: please don’t just buy the cookies, buy the meal and support the restaurants.”
Beyond these overlaps, the general vagueness of David Zwirner’s press release, which does not cite COVID-19 or HIV/AIDS and refers only to “this unique moment in history,” strikes SDA as detrimental to a deeper understanding of the work.
“Why wouldn’t the gallery simply acknowledge that the original moment of loss in 1990 is tied to one deadly virus in 2020?” SDA asks. “This silence raises the question about whether or not the repression of socio-political histories is purposeful. If so, why? Is it too connected to our lived experiences of loss right now? If so, isn’t that precisely why the work would resonate? Does ignoring loss make the work more palatable for the market?”
David Zwirner, they add, has been successful in securing estates of artists associated with Minimalism and gathering secondary market inventory, often decontextualizing the work and “re-branding it in a manner that reduces it to pure object,” SDA says.
In one interview about the project, Rosen forges a link between the AIDS epidemic and the current health crisis, and her website also addresses “the current pandemic affecting nearly everyone globally.” But the installations exist primarily on Instagram, where they are often accompanied by a limited caption that adds little to no background to the work. Some piles of cookies are photographed in private spaces that evoke wealth — the lobby of a high-rise condominium; on top of a pool table — further detaching them from the framework of social activism in which the artist operated.
Some of the more successful iterations, SDA points out, took place in publicly accessible locations: a restaurant in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles; a small grocery store in San Francisco; Galería Mascota in Mexico City.
One member of SDA, who participated in the project, had a different take, arguing that the open-ended nature of the exhibition reflects the interpretive power of the artist’s work.
“I hear the criticisms made towards the Foundation and David Zwirner Gallery about seemingly eliding the AIDS crisis and the sensitivity in choosing an Asian candy,” he told Hyperallergic. “My thought, though, was that Gonzalez-Torres was always interested in infiltrating systems of power through abstraction and allowing for a multiplicity of understandings and resonances, so to me, the fact that the current manifestation of the work has elicited these discussions we are having about HIV and COVID, vulnerable bodies, isolation, and the racialized implications of fortune cookies illustrates the power of Gonzalez-Torres’s work.”
Questions also remain about Zwirner and Rosen’s selection of “Fortune Cookie Corner” over other pile-based installations by the artist. “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991), for example, calls for “an endless supply” of individually-wrapped candies weighing 175 pounds — the ideal body weight for a man. That work was created around the time that Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, succumbed to AIDS; it is a visceral and haunting representation of Laycock’s inevitable decay.
In an interview with Robert Nickas, the artist confirms that “‘Untitled’ (Fortune Cookie Corner)” was his first “food piece”; according to the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, it is also the first work made by the artist in Cuba. These firsts, coupled with the textual component of the piece — which the candy works lack — may be among the reasons why Rosen and Zwirner chose it, perhaps in an effort to convey a universal statement of unity.
But the timing of the exhibition and the ambiguity of some of its presentations, make the project “sound a bit too much like the visual version of an ‘all lives matter’ gesture that fails, once again, to understand, to acknowledge, or to address racial and economic differences,” says SDA. As well-intentioned as participants may be, a work of art does not exist in a vacuum: it will inevitably be judged and examined as part of the immediate world in which it appears.
“Visual art is not a neutral language,” says SDA. “A work can resonate through the ages, but it is always grounded in a historical moment.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended with a comment from artist Javier Téllez.
Editor’s note 6/29/2020 1:30pm EDT: At the request of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, we have removed accent marks from the artist’s name in our report.