In the corner of a room in the Rockbund Art Museum, a colourful pile of candy sits, waiting for visitors to come and take a piece. There seems to be nothing special about this artwork. Except that it is not just candy. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is a bittersweet representation of his lover Ross Laycock who passed away in 1991 due to AIDS.

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Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)

It is an unusual way to represent a person but this “portrait” conveys much more than a conventional figurative painting or photograph. The candies represent the child-like innocence and sweetness of an romantic relationship and by taking a piece of it, we can experience the sweetness of their love. Yet, the depletion of the pile is also a painful reminder of how his lover (and later Gonzalez-Torres himself) wasted away because of the illness. The pile is replenished regularly and endlessly, almost as if his lost lover reappears after each disappearance. However, this act simply points to the futility of any hope in recovering his partner.

Across the rooms of the museum, we encounter other minimal installations by Gonzalez-Torres. At first sight, these are just everyday objects stripped of their context, laid bare and presented in largely empty spaces. However, like the candy artwork, we are invited to consider them anew and to uncover the intimate and poetic expressions buried underneath their appearances.

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Untitled (Orpheus, Twice)

These two mirrors could possibly represent twins or lovers. Try as you might, you will never see complete images of yourself simultaneously in both mirrors. Stand in front of a mirror and you will only see yourself in one mirror, with the other mirror reflecting the same reality without you. Questions of absence, presence and longing invariably emerge. Would this world be the same without our individual existence or the presence of a loved one? Would everything go on as normal? The title of this work references a story of unending longing and regret in the figure of Orpheus, who loses his wife and goes to the underworld to bring her back, only to lose her again forever just before they emerge from the depths.

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Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)

Near the mirrors is a raised dancing platform that remains empty most of the time. If you are in the gallery at the right moment (only a few minutes a day), you will see a performer dancing to music that only he can hear through his personal earphones. This Beckettian waiting game plays with our curiosity to see the performance but thwarts our expectations. Even if we manage to catch the performance, can we truly understand the meaning of this dance since we do not hear the music? Is this performance meant to be a public spectacle or a private expression?

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As we consider the spaces of the gallery, the works can also relate to each other. The twin mirrors and platform are arranged in such a way that unlike a typical dance studio, the dancer will always be denied his own reflection during the performance, thus further accentuating the void suggested by the mirror and the emptiness of the room.

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Untitled (Arena)

Audience interaction (taking candies, seeing your own reflection in mirrors) can be seen prominently in Gonzalez-Torres’s works. Sometimes, it requires that you become part of the art. In Untitled (Arena), you waltz with a partner (preferably your lover, but a friend works just fine) to music only two of you can hear through connected earphones. As both of you dance to a tune that others may not hear or understand, there is an unspoken connection which transcends the background noise of the world. In shutting out that noise, you dance to a rhythm that is intimately shared only by your partner, even though your performance may seem ridiculous or be misconceived by onlookers. Transcending age and sexual orientations, perhaps this is the same thing that happens in all romances, where lovers move to a tune that cannot be heard by the world, but means everything to the participants of the dance.

The minimal appearance and generic titles (“Untitled”) of these works belie the poignant engagement with issues that are at once private to Gonzalez-Torres but also universal to all of us. Maybe the most intense emotions in life can only be expressed adequately in unassuming ways with the simplest of objects.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s first solo exhibition in China was held in the Rockbund Art Museum Shanghai from 30 September to 25 December 2016