Harvard installation is like taking candy from a … piece of art

A golden carpet greets visitors walking into the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard. As eyes adjust to the shimmering mass of color, the shape becomes a clear rectangle, a sharply delineated plane. Upon moving closer, the field of gold coalesces into a tumble of shapes until it finally becomes apparent what the installation is made of: candy!

Composed of individually wrapped hard candies in familiarly shiny foil, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” is a conceptually strong work that is also incredibly visually pleasing and aesthetically challenging.

It would be an understatement to call Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work striking. The reflective quality of the foil on the candy creates a shimmering landscape that feels like an optical illusion at first glance.

The golden surface somehow creates a sense of depth, like a pool that the eyes endlessly wanders over and into. The work cannot be pigeonholed as just an installation piece. Somehow, that label precludes its sensual visual quality. “Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” becomes a sculpture and a drawing, a manipulation of color and space that is no less a work of draftsmanship, architecture and pigment than a conceptually rigorous exercise.

Though “Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” is immediately visually rewarding, viewing the piece in regards to Gonzalez-Torres’ background yields a much deeper reading. The piece has actually been installed posthumously: The artist died in 1996 due to AIDS complications.

His work always had a strong autobiographical link; Gonzalez-Torres never shied from directly addressing his disease through his work. The most important detail of Harvard’s installation is that it is not simply a stationary work of art. Rather, viewers are invited not simply to look, but to partake: The candy that makes up the piece is free for anyone to take. Literally, “Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” keeps giving.

Though this may evoke a connection to the viral spreading of AIDS, what is truly important is how this changes the work’s relationship to its viewer. Gonzalez-Torres does not simply rely on his work to speak for itself and stay with the viewer by means of sheer memory; instead one can literally take home a piece of the art.

The wall text presented in conjunction with the installation does mention that the “host institution” does have to replace the candy that is taken by viewers, but the gallery could do more to explain what viewers are allowed to do.

The experience of taking a piece of candy goes beyond words; it feels like a breaking of the hermetic boundary between viewer and artwork, between viewer and artist. Though it may seem like a tiny thing, it cannot be underestimated.

The candy feels like a gift, a physical gesture from the artist directly to oneself, a show of infinite generosity. Though it is just cheap, shiny caramel candy – yes, you can eat it in the gallery – unwrapping a piece and letting it melt in your mouth feels more like receiving a communion wafer in church. It is a communion in the truest sense of the word: a meeting and a union of two separate entities of viewer and creator. The beauty of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work lies in this giving of itself. It carries out physically what the promise of painting has always been: imparting something of its substance to the viewer.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres has imparted so much life force to his work that even though the artist himself is dead, “Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” feels vibrantly alive. It contains references to love and pleasure, both visually and conceptually in the title of the piece, that are characteristic of the artist’s work.

Gonzalez-Torres embodies the metaphor of an artist as someone who gives, one who gives to all indiscriminately, and one who gives to the end. In this effusive, generous gesture, Felix Gonzalez-Torres reaches out to anyone who may think that art is inaccessible. Reaching far past the realms of Chelsea-cult contemporary fine art, he points towards something common and human in all of us.

“Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – For Roni)” will be installed at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts through Jan. 4. Though it is just a single piece, it is a brilliant and deceptively simple example of the artist’s work and well worth the time spent.