While Felix Gonzalez-Torres remains revered in the art world — he posthumously represented the United States at the 2007 Venice Biennale, and his work made up the thematic basis of the 2011 Istanbul Biennial — what may be starting to fade in our collective memory is the context in which he worked: the height of the AIDS crisis. Asked last year to do a talk on Gonzalez-Torres’ billboards, artist Jim Hodges opted instead to do a film, one the Walker and some 60 other arts and community organizations are screening in observation of World AIDS Day tomorrow. Hodges’ Untitled, a collaboration with Carlos Marques da Cruz and Encke King, aims to mirror the cultural environment his friend Felix was working within, from the bold activism of ACT UP to the political face of the ’80s culture wars. But the film — a 60-minute multimedia mash-up of cultural moments — both encompasses and transcends that era to include references to social justice struggles throughout history, from those inspired by the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War to the Rodney King beating and the death camps of World War II. In a recent interview, Hodges characterized the film as “a fragment of a continuum.” That is, a moment captured from a long, contentious, and ongoing fight for equality, fairness and a more just world.
Here are a few excerpts from my interview with Hodges, whose art will be featured in the 2014 Walker exhibition, Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, co-curated by Walker executive director Olga Viso and Jeffrey Grove of the Dallas Museum of Art. Here are some excerpts from the full interview:
On how his film references Gonzalez-Torres’ art:
The film, as a structure, mimicked Felix’s “dateline” pieces, so there’s a crashing together of times. We bounce around from World War II to current times and back to the ’60s. There a lot of different times, and the tempo is quickly changing from one to the other. References in the film were references of Felix’s. The mirroring was a reference of Felix’s. Doubling of things was a reference of his.
The Smiths’ songs were references to Felix, because he loved the Smiths. The last song is “Death of a Disco Dancer,” and the first one is “Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me.”
The songs are really important because they’re the voice of art in the film. There’s an honesty, a directness. There’s something very specific that happens in the music that doesn’t necessarily happen in politics and the kind of conflicts that continue over and over, with people struggling to have self-expression and self-empowerment, struggling up against government. So, this is part of the continuum. It’s nothing new, and it’s still going on.
On the September 11 terrorist attacks on his home city of New York:
This country went to war with Iraq based on silly ideas that we needed to go and find these weapons of mass destruction. Why would we miss an opportunity when the World Trade towers were destroyed and we were left with that rubble, the fear and unknown, and the stillness that overtook the city for a few days? The crazy people actually stood out, because everyone else was in this state of shock. Wandering the streets. Quietly walking. Respectful of each other. We were all in a state of shock.
What you have in you as a person, through this, is: I would never want this to happen to anyone else. This is so horrible. This should never happen to anyone, to have this kind of horror imposed on you from you-don’t-know-what.
I felt: Wow, I know what this feels like. This feels like what it felt like in 1988, when Scott was diagnosed with HIV. This is what it felt like when Scott died in 1993 of AIDS. It was like, “Oh my god, that’s the same feeling.” I thought: “Okay, now the circle just expanded. It’s not just me and my friends and a small percentage of the population who are suffering from this phenomenon. Actually, all of us have been brought into this reality of horror.”
So now, we’re all vibrating from that same place. We’re all on the same ground. So now is the time to actually have a dialogue: What’s going on in this world? How could this happen to us? Why would we never want to do this to someone else?
What’s the politicians’ answer? This is a time to, boom-boom-boom, beat those drums and, boom-boom-boom, make some money and blow somebody up and expand ourselves and take advantage of someone in this weakness. Let’s use this horror and shock that people are in and take them into a place that’s even more horrific. This is the kind of grossness of the machinery of politics. I don’t know what it’s about, ultimately. I know it’s about power and holding onto it. I know it’s aligned with economics. But I know it’s not about what I went through or what people go through.
I don’t think Americans are different from other people. When you see mothers suffering because their kids are being killed, I think that mothers, no matter where they are, universally would say, “I would never want that to happen to someone else’s kid.” But the government isn’t a mother. And that’s part of the problem.
On why Untitled addresses both HIV/AIDS and other social issues:
The way our government irresponsibly didn’t address the health issue at hand when the AIDS crisis first became known is the problem. We have people in power who are disrespectful, who are prejudiced, who don’t see, who refuse to acknowledge an aspect of the society at large because of their ideological position. They won’t allow themselves to see the humanness that’s there. This is the problem that I see: this continuation—and the continuum—where the powers deny the humanness of the other. It creates the other and then destroys it, or is indifferent to it and lets it be destroyed. This is continually happening.
Felix had AIDS. Obviously, it was an important issue—not one that he was talking about all the time, but clearly it was affecting his work, his psyche. It ended his life. It had to be addressed in work by me as someone who was going to speak about him and his production, but it wasn’t the only thing that Felix talked about. It wasn’t the only thing where one can see, “Oh, here’s this problem. It’s just existing here, for us queer people.” No. Uh-uh. And it’s not a new problem, where people aren’t treated with respect.
On Gonzalez-Torres, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1996, and his art:
Think about where we are, what we suffer through, what we deal with—and what do we put forth? What are we bringing out and putting into the world, considering that the time bomb is ticking underneath our chair and there’s all this shit going on?