The late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres was no stranger to the issue of mortality. In one of his works, he tackled the subject of death from the perspective of HIV/AIDS patients, depicting scenes of empty beds on billboards. Earlier in his career, at the height of the AIDS crisis in the United States, he embraced another issue for terminally ill patients: the placebo effect.
In his art installation piece, “Untitled” (Placebo), Gonzalez-Torres dumped thousands of blue pieces of candy on the floor of a showroom, each piece individually wrapped in plain blue cellophane. Patrons were encouraged to pick the pieces off of the floor and eat them one by one. As the showcase went on, the pieces of candy slowly started to disappear, leaving behind empty space on the floor.
The candy in this work represented the thousands of pills that terminally ill patients take in their lifetimes. Their disappearance comments on the truth that, no matter how many pills a patient takes, mortality slowly catches up with them, one pill at a time. While this piece has come to have a larger meaning — that death strikes all of us in the end — at the time it was powerful commentary on the treatment of people with HIV/AIDS by the medical community.
It was a terrifying time to have the disease, and Gonzalez-Torres’ work perfectly captures this slow-burning terror.
Before researchers discovered treatments for HIV, people who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS often had little hope of recovery. They were used as test subjects for countless drug treatments, many of which proved unsuccessful. It was a terrifying time to have the disease, and Gonzalez-Torres’ work perfectly captures this slow-burning terror.
For many patients, the little blue pieces of candy in Gonzalez-Torres’ piece was a metaphor for their lives: Each individual piece inches away from the larger picture, like the sands of an hourglass, until time is up entirely.
Gonzalez-Torres’ art had a strong basis in his personal life. Around the time he created “Untitled” (Placebo) in 1991, his boyfriend Ross died of AIDS complications. Years later, in 1996, Gonzalez-Torres also succumbed to complications from the virus. He left behind a lifetime’s worth of work dedicated to the HIV/AIDS issue. His work continues to influence artists today.
Since the 1990s, scientists have found multiple treatments for HIV/AIDS, making the disease far less terrifying than it was. Nonetheless, Gonzalez-Torres’ art reminds us all of the struggle that so many people went through to reach this point. “Untitled” (Placebo) is an immortal memory of the importance of respecting those who have life-threatening conditions. It is a reminder that we should all hold on to our compassion in the face of fear and death.