Untitled (Event)

Loss, language, counting the nameless, and the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Ann Lauterbach
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1988. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.


The days are untitled. And then, and then, and then. Is this a list? A calendar? A Wednesday? Rain? The days are untitled. Even as they are stitched with photos of the emptied sky above the emptied streets and live updates in the realm of counting. Counting is not naming. One hundred, or twenty-nine thousand: nameless. Which one is called Cuba? Which one Ross?

The pause increases its domain, piecemeal, unobserved, trivial, masked. The corners are eroded, bending into new forms, but stationary, as if waiting, as if fundamental, neither redundant nor opaque. There is an airy detritus of the envelope gaining on us, the epicenter of a storm, the jargon of capital, the aspiring ghosts, awakened but nameless.

Slant awakened, sleepy in the aftermath. A tool of the ordinary spread like a shadow outward, shadow into night, night into never. Leaning into or across the path, horizontal, as if reading to rupture indifference. What other life? There, in the distance? This one unlisted, uncounted. And desire’s saturated mission, encumbered by the perishable, by the floating agenda, wanting to be an event raised up over the neutral: one, two, three.

And the body’s emoji, the disparate embrace of the audience? Heartless sign and contingent fact awaiting renown. Some horse is dying. Some flower. Air still above the museum’s silent heap. Around the immaculate surfaces, signs. Please Do Not Touch. And so told in brief, the slogan’s approach to living. And then? A child’s habit of speech: tracking the day without consequence. An inertial listing toward a factless Paradise. Corpse wrapped in plastic. Who put that there? Who posed for that? The increments are tremendous.

And were they inconsolable in the aftermath? The undetectable region of unlikeness, after the numbers, after the counting. Signing off from the ravaged plateau, seeking the smallest increments on the turning plot and its present indictment, coded swiftly into the pretty colorless flower and the falling yellow rain’s slant address. Index and citizen under the fearful, untitled passage. Self-portrait as invisible test: unquantifiable inhalations, patterns of a pulse.

“Untitled”, 1988, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, copyright Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1988. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.


Your death?—water

spilled upon the ground—

though water will mount again into rose-leaves—

but you?—Would hold life still,

even as a memory, when it is over,

Benevolence is rare.
   —William Carlos Williams, “History,” 1917

It was spring, remember? Before the trip to the contagious hospital, before the notion of a cruel intervention placed later on a billboard over the avenue. The doctor came to the house. There were glasses of water by the bedside, on the small table. No, it wasn’t spring; it was autumn. Before the trip to the contagious hospital, before the notion of an intervention, later placed on a billboard over the avenue. It was autumn. No, it wasn’t autumn. It was late winter, remember? Before the trip to the contagious hospital, and the moon was full like a huge pink bloom in the sky. Nobody saw the billboard in the moonlit sky.


’Tis frivolous to fix pedantically the date of particular inventions. They have all been invented over and over fifty times. Man is the arch machine, of which all these shifts drawn from himself are toy models. He helps himself on each emergency by copying or duplicating his own structure, just so far as the need is.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Fate,” 1853

Are inventions events? The inventory has a story but you have to peel it away, skin by transparent skin. Under this one, another, and under that, another. And then and then and then, the child, adding up events in a new geography of accounting. The child turns the pages, looking for his favorite truck. Who is Patient Zero? And one and one and one. Could someone bring a copy of The Wings of the Dove? There will be some delay now. Could someone bring a copy of The Fire Next Time?

There will be some delay now.

Shining particles are falling across space in a slow infinite curve.


A season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject.
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 1987

Meanwhile, it is later. A green truck is passing a red truck. That was then and this is now. Patient Zero is dead, and the heroine is dead as well. Was she Lucy? Or was Lucy someone else, in another story, the one in the sky with diamonds? Or causing trouble with Ricardo. No, not Lucy. Was she Nancy? No, Nancy is in another book, she is lifting her skirt. Nancy is my friend. The trucks are gone now. Who saw the billboard in the sky? An audience of one. The days are untitled. There was a public, milling about, climbing the stairs, standing in the beautiful light of the cathedral. Is one a public? Is one the enemy?

Meanwhile, the count exceeds ten thousand.

We shall never be again as we were.


The movement now began with the fact of two hundred million, and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone. Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history.
—George W. S. Trow,
“Within the Context of No Context,” 1980

What happened before these singularities? To whom do they refer, to you, to me? Homer was there; Ovid was there; Virgil. All their stories, all their and then and then and then. The world is choking with memories of the world, one after another. Better a list, a catalogue; better the brevity of a slogan or sign. Scott Burton: “Grouping artists by intentions or their choice of materials will create communities otherwise unrelated.” Intentions and materials configure communities. Are words materials to be offered for intention? Some think so, pliant and reciprocal, pointing inward and outward at the same time. Yes!

What does it mean to say something changed a life? It may mean that things you believed or thought, things that caused your judgments to form, were altered. What a capacious and capricious word, thing. It contains multitudes. Is a word a thing? The child would tell us word is a noun, therefore it is a thing, since nouns refer to things. You knew (I knew) that certain assumptions about how art should look and behave, its acts in the world, were being questioned by many persons from many places at the same time. Was this a revolution? To have persons from many places simultaneously question assumed or received ideas about something? Mechanical reproduction, aura, photographs, heaps, shards, Les mots et les choses, the death of the author, inner experience. This is a list.

Once things have happened, they cannot be altered. There they are, assigned forever to their place in history.

History is a noun. Is it a thing?

History, a thing that constellates inclusion under the sign: what happened; the rest, ephemeral as candy sucked in the mouth of a child bored at a museum. Slowly, the pile of candies on the floor of the room disappears, and the wrappers float in the air, and the floor is bare and the child wanders away into the unknown and someone else dies. And then the temper of exclusion seeks retribution, so overlooked no more, the paper of record retroactively revising its view of the significant dead. Fame is a grim vector, a predictive ghostly claim on the living who imagine themselves persisting after the body has gone cold and gray, included in the reckoning: what happened.

“Six Years: The dematerializaton of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, systems, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones), edited and annotated by Lucy R. Lippard.” 1973

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1988. © Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Courtesy Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

And then you see that once words are things, they might be arranged in relation to each other, and that these relations ask to be interpreted, for without interpretation, they are merely mute objects, white ink on a black ground. You will have to come into view, be seen there, bending over the printed page, saying the words to yourself, and as you turn the pages, the words shift into new shapes of meaning, new contagions, affinities, constellations, and then you look up at a screen where there are black words on a white ground, and countless images, thousands of images, thousands of words without chronology, without sequence. You are immobile at your desk. The day is untitled.

Orpheus turned back; Walter Benjamin’s angel of history turned back. This turning proposes that our conditions of subjection can be extended into things we love instead of the things we obey; and the responses of loved things can become an opportunity for changes in ourselves: stylizations, perversions.
—Doug Ashford, “Empathy and Abstraction, (Excerpts),” 2013


Or just disappearing when we look away.
—Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty, 1993

The child is told: go to your room and think about what you have done or said or not done or not said to cause others, a whole world of others, to be angry, or sad, or hurt. And while you are in your room, count to ten thousand, to twenty thousand, to a hundred thousand. And then, when you look

Ann Lauterbach is the author of ten books of poetry and three books of essays, including Spell, as well as several collaborations with artists. A MacArthur Fellow (1993), she is Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College.
Originally published:
November 16, 2020


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