Date of Award

Fall 12-15-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (BA)




College of Humanities and Fine Arts

First Advisor

Elizabeth Howie


Huddled in the corner of the cold, sterile floor of The Art Institute of Chicago, Felix Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991 is a mound of individually wrapped, multihued candy that can be possessed, consumed, and rearranged by the audience ( The parenthetical remark within the title suggests the portrait is that of a human. In fact, Ross was the artist's lover, who died of AIDS in the year 1991. The candy spill memorializes Ross at his healthy weight of one hundred seventy-five pounds. Even as Ross's body is implicated in the candy, the candies themselves contain and embody a power that may be called thing-power. Thing-power, which Jane Bennett discusses in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, is in every thing-from waste to lightning to dead rats. She defines thing-power as "the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle" in beings and in matter overall (Vibrant Matter 6). Thing-power is not isolated within objects but rather is a flow of power that is present as transmittable energy-in different configurations and flows-in everything and everyone. In Gonzalez-Torres's work, the candy's power is directly expressed through the audience's participation with the art: it spreads throughout the human body, museum, street, city, and world. With the framework of the AIDS epidemic surrounding the work, the candy's dispersal also evokes associations with infection and contagion. Diseases traditionally carry pejorative connotations that mobilize ideological anxieties but not critical thought. Not surprisingly, then, the potentiality of art that is contextualized by disease often is limited to discourses of mourning and mortality. Critical responses to Untitled are no exception in this sense. Without discounting the material realities and social histories of disease that inform that work, in my analysis I will destabilize conventional readings of Untitled by drawing out the conjunction of thing-power and contagion that unravels in the art as a celebratory engagement with disease (the environment) and with candy (the object).