Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled”, 1995, Billboard
As seen on Chicago Transit Authority Rail Platforms
By JASON PICKLEMAN
A horizontal black and white photo of an evenly gray sky depicts a bird flying left to right, its wings outstretched, up and down. The bird is a black silhouette—elegant, formal, and free.
As seen in Chicago Transit Authority’s underground subway and on its elevated passenger train platforms, the image is located amidst conventional advertising billboards. Unlike its neighboring images that advertise legal services or fast food restaurants, the image of the flying bird is bare of any text, or any explanation. No logo. No copy. No text. Just the image of the bird, flying.
Conceived by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres in 1995 as a multi-sited installation beyond gallery and museum walls, Chicago’s recent installation heralds and introduces the exhibition Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1900s–Today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA). As noted by the curator of the exhibition Carla Acevedo-Yates, with Gonzalez-Torres’ work out in the city “the exhibition begins before one enters the museum.” 67 reproductions of the image are presented at over 22 CTA stations (often with more than one on display at each platform).
Measuring 60” W by 48” H, the images are printed and mounted on rigid cardboard, and then slipped into a standard billboard frame. To prevent theft, each image is stapled randomly, though unobtrusively, to the backing of the frame. As of this writing, none of them have been pilfered.
“Untitled”, 1995, Billboard was located at the following CTA stations:
Belmont (Brown, Purple, Red)
Cermak/McCormick Place (Green)
Conservatory-Central Park Drive (Green)
Fullerton (Brown, Purple, Red)
Harold Washington Library-State/Van Buren (Loop)
Howard (Purple, Red, Yellow)
Logan Square (Blue)
Merchandise Mart (Brown, Purple)
According to the artist, the installation of the images should be exhibited in mostly diverse neighborhoods—a description accommodated by the list above. “Allowing the image, freed from the walls of the art institution and their interpretive sway, to become part of the landscape itself, thus creating the potential for more private and unmediated encounters with the work,” writes Acevedo-Yates.
The billboard presentation of the black and white image of the flying bird, “Untitled”, 1995, Billboard was the last work that Felix Gonzalez-Torres conceived before he died of AIDS-related illness on January 9, 1996. As far as I can tell, the billboard(s) were not exhibited within his lifetime. It has subsequently been exhibited many times, all over the world. A partial list would include presentations in Sweden, Ghana, Stockholm, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Italy. In the U.S., the work has been seen in New York and Texas. All posthumously.
Birds, of course, are migratory creatures; and migration is very much a part of our global humanitarian strife. Yet birds are merely hungry creatures and live irrespective of boundaries and fences. They fly and land wherever they can or want. In that sense they are emblems of freedom and independence. A poetically charged icon for any artist.
The image that comprises “Untitled”, 1995, Billboard comes from a series titled on the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation website as “Birds in Sky.” Uniquely similar, they all feature a gray sky with most often a single bird in flight. The range of clouds within many of the photos can vary considerably, as can the tonal quality of the sky. The image seen on Chicago’s transit system is one of the few whose sky/cloud/background is a remarkably neutral, even gray. The bird’s silhouette is almost perfectly symmetrical, with wings, head, and beak all clearly distinguishable.
Beyond the billboard presentation, “Birds in Sky” works have been produced on many substrates and in many media: as a C-print jigsaw puzzle in a plastic bag, 1989; on paper (poster-size) and presented as stacks on the floor, free for the taking, 1992/1993; and printed as a bound 12-page booklet, “Untitled” (Passport #II), 1993, again stacked on the floor for the taking, as seen at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in the 1994 exhibition Traveling.
It should be mentioned that two additional installations of “Untitled”, 1995 are on display at the MCA proper: one on the MCA’s loading dock door off of Chicago Avenue, and another before greeting visitors outside the exhibition’s galleries on the MCA’s fourth floor.
What attracts is the serenity of the image—it has a quiet peacefulness. And when seen on the subway next to the loud scream of colorful commercial advertising, a strangely calming and meditative effect. It is so odd to see an image on the street that isn’t selling or advertising. It is a gift.
Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—