Carl George, artist and close friend of Ross Laycock and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, has generously donated an archive of dozens of letters, photographs, and exhibition cards to Visual AIDS. The correspondences—a small selection of which is included in the above slideshow—presents an intimate view into the friendship of these three men by offering rare personal details that are underknown in the current discourses surrounding Gonzalez-Torres' work. Here, Visual AIDS researcher Shawn Diamond discusses the archive at length with Carl George.
To set up an appointment to view "The Carl George / Felix Gonzalez-Torres / Ross Laycock archive at Visual AIDS," email Alex at [email protected].
I had the honor of interviewing Carl to build upon the new biographical and artistic insight this collection presents. Despite a premature death, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work continues to affect people more than twenty-five years later. With the current state of politics, which is inarguably reminiscent of the Reagan and Bush era, the original urgency of the pieces is pressing. Through poetry, drawings, photographs, and letters, this collection provides an unrestricted look at the connection between Felix, Ross and Carl. While the primary material regarding Felix’s life is incredibly exciting, it is also the documentation detailing Ross’ often slighted existence wherein a deeply valuable portion of this collection lies. These correspondences give new insight into a relationship that has become modern art-historical legend.
In 1978, Carl and Ross first met in Montreal and instantly realized a strong fraternal connection. A few years later in 1983, while sharing an apartment in New York, Ross excitedly told Carl of a wonderful new man he had met at Boybar, a gay bar on St. Mark’s Place in New York's East Village. This "new man" was Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Carl was there to witness the couple’s relationship mature over the next eight years as the three remained intimate friends. In 1988, Ross was diagnosed with AIDS and moved with Felix to Los Angeles for a brief period.
On January 24, 1991, Ross died in Toronto from AIDS-related complications and Felix faced one of the greatest trials imaginable – the obligation to continue living. Until 1996, the time of his own death, Felix would create some of his most prolific work, repeatedly proclaiming that it was made for an audience of one, Ross.
These collected writings read like Felix Gonzalez Torres’ poetic pieces: heartbreakingly honest and rooted in hope for a better time. It is in this sentiment, as well as possibly for the first time telling Ross’ side of the story, that the recently acquired archive of material at Visual AIDS is generative for Felix Gonzalez-Torres' body of work, rounding out a biography that is inextricable from the art.
Shawn Diamond: Thank you so much for donating these documents to Visual AIDS, Carl. These letters, postcards, and photographs express emotions and personality—aspects of humanity that are all too often neglected in scholarly writings. I’ll get back to this detail in a moment, but can you first tell me more about Ross Laycock? He is frequently overlooked in writings on Felix Gonzalez-Torres and when he is mentioned it is briefly and in a general sense. I would like to ask you to build a fuller picture of Ross as a person. Where did you meet? What was he interested in? Essentially, who was Ross Laycock before he met Felix?
Carl George: Ross Laycock was born in Calgary in 1959 and his family moved to Norman Wells, a small mining and oil town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, in 1971. He had three sisters: Georgia, Janice and Julie. His mother was also named Georgia and she was a championship fly fisher woman. His father died when Ross was young, about ten years old. It left him untethered in many ways and I think he spent the rest of his life looking for guidance and, as cliché as this sounds, a father figure. I was his brother figure and glad to be because he was the best, most stalwart friend I could have hoped for. And, he was the polar-opposite gay man of myself, meaning he was everything I was not. Ross was tall and athletic, I was average height and not at all interested in athletics. I’m of French Canadian and Lebanese parentage and, depending on my age and the season, went from olive skinned to deep brown with frizzy Arab hair. Ross was waspy, white with thick, straight brown hair. He was exuberant and always happy; I tended to be taciturn and self-contained. He was a sexual animal. Me, not so much – at least not then. He thought I was hilarious and smart and I was mesmerized by his confidence. We had different tastes in men and in nightlife, so we often went separate ways and would compare notes the next day. He had a deep understanding of chemistry and physics while I excelled in art, philosophy, and literature. But somehow, it all worked.
Ross told me that his father had invested in some oil wells and as a result Ross benefited from an annuity – a sum that varied but was never too much. He told me he had a lonely childhood, being the only boy and living in such a tiny and remote town. He used a snow mobile to get to and from school and he told me that his best friend, who taunted wolves when riding his snow mobile home from school one day, miscalculated, and ran out of gas. The wolves ate him and all they found was his helmet.
Ross was accepted into the University of British Columbia and studied science. He had his first serious relationship in Vancouver with a guy named Damien, a music major studying voice. Ross learned from him to love opera and became quite knowledgeable. After a year or so, he transferred to McGill University in Montreal to continue his studies. McGill has a renowned science faculty (specifically physics and medicine) so this made sense. After a short while he became restless and dropped out of McGill. He was really coming of age and his sexuality and the excitement of being young and handsome were too much for him to contain within the rigors of conservative academia. He was about 6’2” and in perfect shape – a serious runner. I don’t remember him going to the gym at that time, just running.
Ross would run up Mount Royal in Montreal and take part in the very active cruising scene in the huge park there. He’d tell me about his exploits as I listened incredulously but fascinated nonetheless. Sex al fresco was not something I’d ever imagined, and he seemed so in command and at ease with it – I found him to be a marvel. So, I guess he helped me to be more fully gay and accepting of myself, even though I’d been going to gay bars and clubs in Detroit since I was 15. I was more artistic, and loved New Wave and punk music. I was never really a punk but identified with the “fuck the patriarchy,”anti-establishment ethos. I had been to Europe as a youth and I think Ross was impressed by that. He wanted to know everything: what I’d seen, done, and where I’d been. He was obsessed with culture, wealth, and style – at least in these young and early years. We both were.
I remember Ross and I first met in the HR department of Holt Renfrew, a high-end retail establishment in Montreal. I had also dropped out of McGill (from the art history program) and we were applying for jobs in the visual merchandising and display department – he in men's display and me in women's. We both got hired that day.
I had a great love of fashion and was hired to work in the couture department with Carolyn Wiener – a well-known and highly regarded maven of haute couture. I guess they saw something in me. She took me under her wing and taught me everything about the fashion business. Ross was put in charge of the entire men's visual department, which suited him perfectly as he lived for L'uomo Vogue, Italian menswear (and men), and spent every penny he earned, and much more, on gorgeous clothing, especially a then new designer named Giorgio Armani. One year, Ms. Wiener took me with her to Paris for the couture and pret-a-porter shows. Ross went to Rome and met Ms. Wiener and I in Paris. We were two small town Canadian gay boys living an exciting, strange and wonderful life - a prelude of what was to come.
Ross had a dream that someday he would become a menswear designer and ultimately, he applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and was accepted for the fall of 1980. He moved to New York in July of 1980 and I followed in November of that year. He taught me about fine tailoring in menswear, introducing me to the great Italian houses –Canali, Redaelli, LoroPiana, Corneliani, Brioni, and of course Armani, who had just dressed Richard Gere for the film American Gigolo. I remember Calvin Klein stopped Ross on 7th Avenue one day and asked him to model, but Ross declined because he was focused on becoming a menswear designer. He could sew like mad and made much of his own clothing – beautiful coats and perfectly cut trousers. He was obsessed with electronics and gadgets and always bought the newest and the best, so he had an Italian Bernina – a top of the line sewing machine.
My initial impression of Ross, that day in the HR department, was not good – I found him to be overly confident, almost brazen and he seemed privileged to me, something I was always wary of. He insisted that we be friends and that is really the only way I can explain it – insisted that we be friends. He invited me to dinner night after night and called me every day. There was never a sexual attraction between us, but there was an immediate bond, in spite of itself.
He became lovers with a blond, French Canadian guy named Yves and for a while the two of them were inseparable. Yves had a gap between his front teeth and Ross obsessed about that, how cute it was, I remember. Yves was beautiful.
I came from a large, working class family – the ‘60s Catholic social justice school of thought and practice. Ross seemed very foreign to me in that respect. I wasn’t religious by this point in my life, but Ross enjoyed a kind of unfettered freedom with his sexuality and confidence in his own skin that was alien to me. Soon, I came to love and admire his exuberance and liberated sexuality and depended on his friendship. He certainly wasn’t wealthy, but he was privileged and he carried it without any kind of guilt or shame.
Moving to New York and attending FIT full-time while working as a waiter was very difficult and sobering and, after a while, it became clear that Ross was not going to be a designer and that FIT was not for him, so that ended. I think Ross just wanted to break out of the small-town mentality and confines in which he grew up. After a few years he changed, matured, settled down, and this is the Ross that Felix met and fell in love with.
SD: The letters chronicle three lives: yours, Felix’s, and perhaps most vividly, Ross’. What do you feel these letters capture best about your lives and what do they leave out? One of the most prominent qualities seems to be an underlying wit and humor.
CG: All the joking and banter between Ross, Felix, and me was just that. None of us had a dime; we were perpetually broke. By this time, I had been in New York for a few years and being Canadian and officially “illegal,” I only worked occasionally. Ross and Felix were both waiters while Felix was still a student at NYU. Ross always teased me about being a “bougie queen,” slumming it in the East Village, and I teased him about being a boy-toy and angling for a designer watch. While Ross teased me about my "luxurious locks" – I had frizzy Arab hair, and not much of it - Felix laughed and played along, joking about my “svelte body,” “sexy Lebanese curves.” It was all in fun. Felix and I had long conversations about his work and method. I believe he valued my opinions and point of view. Unfortunately, my letters and cards to them no longer exist but you can imagine, by deduction, that I gave as good as I got – actually better. No one could make Felix laugh like me as I regaled him and Ross with my sexual exploits.
SD: We are often told that Felix supposedly tried to divorce himself from his pieces, but I see them as being unquestionably personal. What type of division do you see? At what point do the personalities of Ross and Felix become important in the artwork and where is Ross in the work?
CG: Let’s just say that absolutely everything about the artwork has to do with their relationship and Ross as muse. That is undeniable. But, the work is much bigger than that and Felix would never want the work to be pigeonholed in any way. I think he created them as paradigms of what love can be, what a relationship can aspire to, how the world can be a better place, and how human kindness can prevail. He certainly had an expansive mind and was a genius – a word I don’t use often. Ross’s presence in the artwork is in its boundless generosity, the huge and open spirit, in the kindness of sharing, Ross’s atheism, his logical mind, and his freedom from guilt and love of his own homosexuality; these are the attributes Felix loved about Ross. Felix’s presence in the artwork is in its lofty aspirations, in the sense of hope it disseminates – one piece at a time, and in the elegiac themes and timeless elegance of the works. Felix's work is replete with signifiers of every kind - especially about AIDS, his great love for Ross, and their time together. Felix told me that the blue he used was the color of Ross's hospital gown at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto; the piles of candy represented their combined and diminishing weight; the word "North" refers to Canada; Harry was Ross's dog (a black Labrador); the Rossmore is a street in Los Angeles where they always stayed at the Ravenswood Apartments – once owned by Mae West; and the canoe was the one they used on their VW bus trips in northern Canada.
SD: Felix is often discussed as being opposed to labels such as a ‘gay artist’ or a Cuban artist; and yet, the politicization of identity remains as relevant now as it was in the '80s and '90s. It makes me wonder if as an artist, Felix ever truly aimed to move beyond identity. For example, as Felix attempted to create art that resisted a hegemonic notion of identity, there are signifiers that are particular to queer communities. We see this in some of his portraits where he includes significant moments in queer history specifically, such as Stonewall or The Bowers V. Hardwick Supreme Court decision of 1986.
CG: Felix always said to me “I don’t wear grass skirts.” He was a complicated man who on one hand abhorred identity politics and on the other, admired and supported work made by female artist like Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman - work which was feminist and clearly addressed identity, among other things. He looked for the gray areas, the unspoken; rightly believing therein lies the truth.
SD: Much of the collection at Visual AIDS is poetic in nature, such as the simple statement, “Life is pretty” or the beautiful lines of “everytime [sic] you look at the picture of the two statues holding each other for ever [sic] at the Champs Elysees I want you to always think about how happy I was. There at that precise moment, right there.” Is the lyricism of the correspondences confined to their writings? Can you give more insight into Ross’ sentimentalities?
CG: They shared so many attributes and were so seamless in their ways of living. Ross was really a home body but enjoyed dancing and going out, as did Felix. Ross introduced Felix to the beauty of nature, the really wild Canadian countryside. Felix absolutely loved his times camping in Northern Ontario with Ross and Harry the dog. I think one summer they traveled all the way east to Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Labrador. Ross knew music – especially opera. He introduced me and Felix to the classics and lesser known masterpieces by great sopranos and tenors. Maybe at times Ross was overshadowed or intimidated by Felix’s intellect and sometimes made feeble attempts at writing deconstructivist theory and poetry but he soon realized that he was out of his league – at least in that respect. I know that he and Felix had long conversations about theory and philosophy and Felix admired his thoughts. I just think that Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space” (1957) – Felix’s all-time favorite – may have been a bit dense for Ross. But, he could talk endlessly about physics and chemistry and explain the most abstract scientific ideas, so Felix learned just as much from him.
SD: The details of Felix’s life are paramount to me as a writer. Personally, I perceive the art working through an immediate intimacy between artist and audience, which in turn, reactively creates a desire in me to fully understand the details of the artist’s life. Clearly you do as well, as you offer these details. Yet, many of the pieces are not fundamentally dependent on these details to articulate meaning. What more can you say on this?
CG: I believe Felix tried to separate many of the details of his life from his art, and when he did include suggestions or hints about his childhood or ethnicity, he rarely articulated them in interviews. But, he did tell me that the photographs of birds, for example, flying among the clouds are vultures found only in South Florida. Or, perhaps he was making a wry comment on the right-wing Cuban exile community of Miami, whom he despised.
Unfortunately, there will always be things about Felix and his life left out, such as his talent in the sport of fencing, which I don’t think many people know about. Felix practiced it quite seriously, especially while at NYU, where he entered competitions and from what I could tell, was quite good. I remember seeing his fencing mask and knee pads piled on the floor of his Grove street apartment and, when I realized what they were, teased him mercilessly about his effete choice in sport.
SD: One postcard reads, “To ten more Pedro Zamoras, now that hope is harder to find.” Felix enclosed this postcard in an envelope which he marked with a sticker of a dwarf mourning Snow White as she sleeps. This haunting use of the fairytale to comment on the atrocities of his time really affects me. There is a poetic metaphor he sees in Disney and other cartoons that he continuously utilizes. In reference to the toy figurines he collected, he remarked in an interview that he initially started collecting them as he thought they would supply him with comfort, albeit in vain. Despite this, we see him continue to play with the toys in photographs that he sent you, such as a Fred Flintstone sleeping in his bed. What is your perspective?
CG: Felix was a child of revolutionary Cuba. He and his sister Gloria were put on a plane as children and sent to live with relatives in Spain. His parents were initially supporters of the revolution but soon, like so many others, became disillusioned with Castro and the broken promise of the movement, especially when in 1961 Castro aligned himself with Khrushchev and Russia, something he had promised never to do. Even Che Guevara broke with Castro in 1965. Felix’s parents were not given visas to leave, only the children. So, the trauma of being separated from his parents and shipped off, away from his country and home, living with what Felix described as mean and sadistic relatives in Spain, then soon moving to Puerto Rico to live with other relatives, was deeply damaging to a young child. The Disney figurines represented to him the memory perhaps, of a more innocent and happy time. He supposedly left them to me, with the provision that I never sell them. Honestly, I had no desire to warehouse 200 Disney figures and politely declined.
SD: The letters are a testament to the passion between Ross and Felix. It says a lot when one can read into their relationship through the letters written to you. The return address on one letter is ‘Ross Laycock-Gonzalez,’ in Felix’s handwriting. This demonstrates a claim over Ross that does not objectify him, but is instead an organic approach connecting the two in a more publicly visible way. This letter was for you, so clearly, they did not mean it to be a political statement; and yet, there is such tenderness in this small act. As an outsider how would you describe the relationship? In what ways do you see Felix continuing life after Ross and with his new partner and in what ways do you see Felix clinging to his memories?
CG: The Ross Laycock-Gonzalez was a way of incorporating, not possessing, him. Felix and Ross were one. They were intertwined on a molecular level, like all great love relationships. Inseparable, yet unique.
Felix’s partner after Ross was Claudio. I don’t remember meeting him. He was in Miami but I know that he helped Felix to continue and maybe find some kind of happiness after Ross. I saw Felix many times after Ross died. I was the direct link and I think that helped Felix in a way. He could remember, through me, the good and happy times. Other times he couldn’t see me because it was too painful. He couldn’t help but cling to the past because a big part of him died with Ross, but he did manage to move forward, keep making artwork–some of his best, and he found a semblance of love and happiness. I don’t think there is any way to compare his life with and without Ross. He was a different person.
SD: Life after love is far from the ‘happily ever after’ Disney narrative. How can we understand Felix’s search for love after his ‘perfect lover’ passed away? Being perfect, after all, alludes to one ideal. I realize that despite advocating for a queer rereading of Felix’s work, I myself, cling to the fantasy of Ross as Felix’s one love. And still, I find it comforting to hear Felix found happiness at the end of his life by loving again. Felix being a different person, a person without the physicality of Ross, allowed him to open a new chapter. He was dating other men, but still creating artwork for Ross. Was there an internal struggle between past and future love for Felix?
CG: Felix was a great romantic. Ross was Felix’s one great love. Claudio was essential nonetheless and I’m sure Felix loved him too. Felix struggled deeply until the day he died because he and Ross were robbed, murdered while young. They could have gone the distance. The anger we all felt is impossible to imagine. But you don’t see that in the work he created between 1991 and 1996. It is resolute, profound and elegant, as always.
SD: Disney; the idea of perfect; and lightbulbs never shown burnt out. These are things of significance to Felix, despite being surrounded by disease, death, and facing love after a lover dies. These ‘real world’ events are far from a Disney fairytale. How does fantasy versus reality play out in Felix’s life and more so to those of the early-AIDS generation in general? Could it have been an attempt to rewrite a fairytale for the contemporary world?
CG: There was no illusion. It was pure horror and was happening so rapidly we barely had time to think. But, we all had to cling to something, whether it was mythology, religion, family, or fantasy. It was necessary in order to keep living, to survive. ACT UP was so essential in this respect. It helped us to focus our energy, our creative talents, and our rage in a way that was effective and life-changing for many of us.
SD: For an artist of such fame as Felix, almost all publications ignore these personal details of his life. What needs to be rewritten in the history of Felix Gonzalez-Torres? One thing that stands out for me is the heteronormative portrayal of Felix and Ross. Do you agree?
CG: Many writers don’t know how to write about homosexual love. No matter how they try, it is at its foundation, repulsive to them. They can only frame it within heteronormative parameters and nomenclature. That is why Felix’s friendship with many heterosexual men and women could only go so far. There are things about Felix and Ross and about living with AIDS that they just could not know or understand, and he would never have shared those things with them. There are coded signifiers in his work that are meant for gay people. For example, while I lived with Felix for a month in Venice in the mid-80s I remember one morning he jumped out of the shower and danced at the end of my bed, his big dick swinging around and around – helicopter style - while we laughed insanely. Now I imagine many straight women have seen their husbands do the same thing and had a good laugh too, but it’s different between two men, isn’t it?
I remember another day walking with him in the West Village and he ran into an incredibly hot guy –a porn star. They talked briefly and, as we continued, Felix told me about how big his dick was and the hot sex they had. This was after Ross died, but in truth, Felix had started to have all kinds of sex while Ross was alive but very sick. I believe they had an agreement. A week later, I was visiting Felix and he pulled out a pair of his shredded and bloody underwear, laughing while telling me that “these are the results of my date with that guy.” Straight people might not understand this, might even find it repulsive, or may not appreciate the wonderfully dark humor, even less so within the context of the time.
On the other hand, the quotidian kind of love Felix and Ross shared - the camping trips, the days spent at home together doing nothing, cooking together, endless hours in bed reading the Sunday Times and loving each other - these things are universal, aren’t they? Gay love is almost always met with a certain level of revulsion and sometimes overt aggression. Even today, simple displays of affection can get us killed.
SD: You articulate a lifestyle characterized as ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘unfettered freedom’ when discussing your first years of friendship with Ross. I believe it is fair to say that the two terms you use can be understood as inevitably ingrained, to some degree, in the American and Canadian ‘queer experience,’ from public activism to intimate camping trips. Would you elaborate on your perspective of these terms in relation to the years recorded by your collection of letters?
CG: The late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a very indulgent and inspiring time of sexual freedom and energized politics, nowhere moreso than in the gay community. It seemed as though we were on the cusp of enormous change, of being fully integrated into society but on our own terms. The politics of the time were adamantly focused on gay identity and full citizenship, as we were, and with no compromises. But then came AIDS and everything was derailed because we had to mobilize all of our resources and energy on a different kind of activism and on staying alive. Ross and I were lucky to have experienced this great period in gay history – real joy, freedom, and inspired politics - the last gasp before the plague. When the tsunami of AIDS hit we were forced to completely side-track our lives and focus, firstly, on caring for each other, then on quickly understanding the complex web of politics, science, big pharmaceutical practices and money, and most importantly: organizing. Ross participated in AIDS Action Now!, the Toronto version of ACT UP. He was very active and involved with the group, helped others in understanding the science of AIDS and medical trials, and he took part in a major action at the International AIDS conference in Montreal in 1989. At the conference New York City’s chapter of ACT UP stormed the stage during the opening ceremony, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was meant to speak, and read a list of demands known as the Montreal Manifesto. They deferred to and collaborated with AIDS Action Now!, their Canadian counterpart determining, rightly so, that the Canadian group had to be front and center. Ross was very energized and proud of his participation in this activist work.
SD: What role does science play, if any, in Felix’s art? Did Ross’ passion for science have any influence on your art?
CG: Science was a big part of AIDS activism. We all had to learn science, quickly. Some of Felix’s early work consisted of simple lines on graph paper - peaks and valleys representing his blood work results. He also pasted small photo images that looked like blood cells on laboratory bottles, one of which he gave to me. I think my work in film, which is experimental - collaged images set to intricate sound montages, is more mathematically inspired, with a dash of humor and sex.
SD: Felix’s aesthetic of science is fascinating and raises more questions. Regarding the role of science, what intersections do you see between your art and Felix’s? Generally speaking, how was your work implicated by your friendship with Ross and Felix? And, on the flip side, how was Felix’s work influenced by your films?
CG: My artwork is very different from Felix’s and, in that respect, we had very little overlap and maybe even less in common. There was collaboration once with a film of mine that both Felix and Ross really admired. It’s called DHPG Mon Amour (1989) and is a short, super-8 “home movie” about two gay men, friends of mine, Joe Walsh and David Conover, and how they took healthcare into their own hands by self-administering a drug to combat cytomegalovirus (CMV Retinitis), something that was afflicting a lot of PWAs (Persons with AIDS) and causing blindness. Felix saw it as activist filmmaking (and he was right) done in a postmodern style (which it is). Felix included screenings of this film in the Group Material AIDS Timeline (1989) at the Hartford Athenaeum [info here]. He also liked another film of mine called The Star Spangled Basher (1991), mostly because I included double exposed images of Whitney Houston singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl XXV with an overlay of voices talking about her being a closeted lesbian. He included this film clip in another exhibition he curated at the Walker Art Center, I think. Otherwise, Felix always gave me copies of his work, even the very early pieces he made while a student – and I believe he respected my opinion and input.
SD: Would you tell me more about what your films meant to Felix and Ross? Ross connected personally with Old Rosa (1989). What was that one about? What did it mean for you to have Felix include DHPG Mon Amour in Group Material’s AIDS Timeline?
CG: Old Rosa was a feature film project that I worked on for ten years beginning in 1989. It was based on a novel by the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who was considered the greatest post-revolutionary writer in Cuba but was imprisoned and exiled because he was gay and highly critical of the regime. He escaped to the United States in the Mariel boatlift, like Felix’s parents. I was given the novel by Walter Armstrong who was working at Grove Press at the time. After reading it and being enraptured with the story, I knew that I had to do it, that this was going to be my first feature film project. So, I wrote to Arenas via Grove Press, telling him how profoundly moved I was by the writing and the story and asking him to give me the chance to make a feature film based on his book. Many months later I got a call from Reinaldo and we made plans to meet. At that time he lived in Hell’s Kitchen, in a two bedroom, fourth floor tenement walkup; a world famous author living in poverty. Felix and Ross, like all of my friends, were very supportive and excited about the possibility of this important project coming to fruition. After meeting Reinaldo many times, and after him reviewing some of my short films and showing them to his friend Néstor Almendros, the great cinematographer, he agreed to give me the rights to develop the project. Thus began a long, incredible journey taking me back and forth to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Hollywood. I shot a lot of film on my first trip to Cuba, in 1990, during a horrendous time known as the “special period” as the Russians pulled out of the country and cut off financial aid. The country was in a financial free-fall and Cubans were suffering, scavenging for food and every day supplies. I had a special screening of the footage at Artist’s Space in New York which Ross and Felix attended. Images of Cuba at that time were rarely seen, as most Americans had never been there. I think it was very emotional for Felix to see footage of Cuba, a place he had been forced to leave as a child. And of course he knew and admired Arenas and his work. His autobiography, Before Night Falls (1992), was released posthumously soon after his death in December of 1990 and Julian Schnabel bought the rights to that and made a truly great film (2000) starring Javier Bardem, who was then nominated for an Oscar for his amazing performance as Reinaldo Arenas.
SD: Personally, I do not think a work by Felix would be a ‘Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ without evoking emotion. Your films have an equally affective quality. Is there room in future discourses, and academia at large, for these emotions?
CG: Academia is always wary of emotion, and for good reason, as it is often maudlin and manipulative. Postmodernism wrongly dismisses representational art for exactly this reason. And that’s why I hate Broadway! But, there’s nothing like a good cry. Remember, Felix also imbued his work with a lot of humor and sarcasm as well. He loved a good joke.
SD: How do these emotions fit in with the activist moments at the end of the millennium into today's ongoing justice causes?
CG: I knew when making DHPG Mon Amour that it would resonate deeply. I could feel it happening as we filmed. It’s that way with all art, I believe. The artist knows while making an artwork that it’s coming alive, that something great is happening. The key is knowing when to stop. Activism is, at its heart, emotional. It comes from a deep well of hurt, injustice and inequality and explodes in expressions of anger and demands for change. Art can facilitate this and act as a catalyst. Felix’s work accomplished this in very subversive ways.
For more from Carl George on Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Ross Laycock, view Carl George's Visual AIDS web gallery Goodbye to All That.