In 1991 the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a photograph of an unmade bed, featuring two pillows that still had impressions left upon them as if someone had just lay there. This photograph is a memorial to the artists partner Ross Laycock, who died of aids in 1991, and has been left untitled.
In 1992 this photograph was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the image didn’t remain within the confines of the gallery space, it had also been displayed at the same time on 24 billboards around the city.
(Keating 2009) Discusses the effects this work has had, explaining how these photographs displayed upon billboards will have appeared quite ambiguous to pedestrians passing by, a screen usually reserved for displaying images used to sell a product is instead exhibiting an artwork. Of course it’s context doesn’t suggest its an artwork and with no prior knowledge of the artist the viewer would be completely unaware of its purpose. Instead they would have to rely upon what the image signifies in order to construct a meaning. A bed could mean several things and could change depending on who is reading the image, for example it could be a place of solitude, relaxation or sexual activity. But the impressions left upon the pillows and the crumpled sheets suggest a body has just left the scene, and this absence of the body could suggests loss or even death.
From the start of the aids epidemic the gay man was depicted as a helpless victim of the disease. When the disease was first noticed within gay men “our homophobic culture produced an illness which was restricted to the (homosexual) body and it’s engagement in deviant sex.” – Kelly T Keating
“The British historian Jeffery weeks states: On a world scale most people living with HIV and Aids are not gay. Most are poor, black and many are women. But despite all the government sponsored education campaigns, the scientific papers and the documentaries, and common sense perceptions, Aids and gayness are indissolubly linked. To be diagnosed HIV positive, to live with HIV disease, is to risk being diagnosed as homosexual.”
During the Aids epidemic the association between the disease and the homosexual body became so strong they conflated into one. But what Gonzalez-Torres did with ‘Untitled’, by leaving the bed absent of a body was leaving Aids without a body to associate with. He was beginning to disrupt that link between the disease and the homosexual. The loss, grief and death, which is signified within the photo, becomes the product of Aids, not the homosexual body.