Since it's summer, this tattoo is visible the majority of the time, and it's an intriguing tattoo so I get asked about it. A lot.
"What do the clocks mean?" I'll give you guys a fuller answer to this question than I'm able to give people on the street.
I'm a fangirl for the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the same way that I imagine a lot of you are fangirls/boys/people for Sherlock and Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and all that (I also love those things, but not as much as I love Felix). I hate saying that he was a participatory artist in the 1990s because I don't really think of his work that way; I see it as more neo-minimalist. It is also participatory at heart. And it's my blog, so I'll call it what I want, which I can't do when I'm submitting work to art historians because they have a rigid way of thinking about the world, not least of all because that's the only way for them to set up a value system for contemporary art.
Anyway. I fell in love with Felix in 2012. I was studying his work Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) which is on view most of the time at the Art Institute here in Chicago. Ross Laycock was Felix's partner. Both of them had AIDS. Ross died in 1993, after which Felix made Portrait of Ross. Felix died in 1996.
Portrait of Ross is a pile of multi-colored, multi-flavored hard candies weighing 175 pounds at the outset, which was Ross's approximate body weight when he was healthy. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece. As the days go on, the pile dwindles, simulating the process of death by illness. The certificate of authenticity states that the owner provides "endless supply" of the candies, so eventually the pile is refilled.
There's a lot going on in that artwork. For one, for his candy piles Felix generally chose to use one flavor and color of candy (see Placebo). Ross is the outlier here, which says a lot about how Felix felt saw Ross and why he loved him - the artwork is full of bombast and color, it's a kaleidoscope, there's the act of matching color and flavor and having so many different kinds of candy to choose from. Ross was not a monolith, he was a whole and complex human being.
Then there's the act of depleting and refilling. Many critics (and I have read just about everything there is to read about this artwork) claim that this is a way to watch Ross die, the way Felix had to, and inasmuch as that's the case it was a way for Felix to "rehearse" his feelings about death. "Rehearse" is Felix's word, and he used it - to my memory - to talk about the act of letting go of artwork and putting it out into the public space. I think something else is going on in Portrait of Ross entirely.
Because it's an endless supply. The body never dies. It's depleted and refilled. That's not the process of death - that's the process of resurrection. Rather, it's the process of life: We shed skin cells and grow new cells; trees shed their leaves and sprout them again come spring; stars explode and swallow planets in the process, expelling particles into space, and eventually the force of gravity gathers the particles in new combinations and forms new stars and new planets. Felix didn't make this artwork to have Ross die over and over - he made this so that Ross would live indefinitely.
And inasmuch as that's the case, it's the most beautiful elegy I've ever seen in my life. I am heartbroken and in love.
What do the clocks mean? The clocks are Felix's artwork Untitled (Perfect Lovers). When the artwork is displayed, two matching clocks are hung on a wall lying tangent to each other. This forms the illusion of an infinity sign. Fresh batteries are put in, they're set to the same exact time, and they're started at the same exact time. Eventually, because of natural variations in the batteries, one of the clocks starts to slow more quickly than the other, and it stops ticking.
It's a meditation on time and mortality and what it's like to watch someone you love - your perfect lover - die. And not just that, but to know your time is approaching, too. It's the sensation of having this love that feels like it could go on forever (into infinity) but facing the bodily reality that it can't. It's the sensation of being a man with AIDS in a couple.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres had the great accomplishment of expressing that very complex, very particular, very core human experience with two simple wall clocks. Try telling me that any author has ever expressed an idea as elegantly as that. Try telling me that anyone has ever used any medium so well as Felix Gonzalez-Torres used his to express the most vulnerable parts of the human experience, death and love.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres is the single greatest artist and rhetorician I have ever come across. By many, many heads. I aspire to that level of genius and ability, and I know I will never reach it.
Felix is a personal love of mine. I could proudly have his work tattooed over my hands and my sternum and my neck and pretty much my whole body. Felix saved my life. One day in 2012, when I was doing my primary round of research on Portrait of Ross in L.A., I was reading through a stupendous interview he did with Tim Rollins. At the time, I was considering the possibility of applying to graduate schools for art history programs, which is why I was doing all this work. It was the summer. I had been in an abusive relationship for seven years. I was obsessed with the idea of having obligations: Obligations are the reason that I stayed in that relationship. I had made a commitment and I was going to keep it come hell or high water because keeping your commitments come hell or high water or predation or abuse is just what you do. I had married this man and no matter what sacrifices were asked of me I was going to make it work. I was a doubtful but dutiful Christian wife.
Then I read this:
I have a major problem with the cultural traps and constructions of God. I think that it is a good excuse for us to accept any kind of situation as natural, inevitable. Once we believe that there is no God, that there is no afterlife, then life becomes a very positive statement. It becomes a very political position because, then, we have no choice but to work harder to make this place the best place ever. There is only one chance, and this is it. If you fuck it up this time, you've fucked up for ever and ever... There's nothing except here - this thing, this table, you, me - that's it. That becomes a very radical idea because you have to take responsibility to make it the best.
"It is a very good excuse for us to accept any kind of situation as natural, inevitable." I must do my duty. I must fulfill my obligations. I must stick to this commitment no matter what the consequences are for me. This is what we are meant to do.
I left my husband about two months later.
What are the clocks? The clocks are my new conception of god: I do not believe in god anymore. I believe in the power of the human imaginative capacity. I believe in the possibilities that come along with change. I believe in letting things go. I believe in working with the real resources we have at hand to create something new and better. I believe in art.