Playfulness is a Serious Task: The Spiritual Fusion of Seriousness and Playfulness Reflected in González-Torres’ Portrait of Ross in L.A.

Is there something both playful and serious about death? The answer to this question is artfully demonstrated by Cuban-born artist Félix González-Torres. His Portrait of Ross in L.A. is a playful monument to Torres’ long-term partner Ross Laycock, who died from AIDS in 1991. It is made up of 175 pounds of candies, individually wrapped in colourful cellophane, representing Ross’ “ideal weight”[1] – the literal heaviness of Torres’ dead partner. This bittersweet piece is indeed a synthesis of frivolity and tragedy. It combines the sweetness of the candies and the bitterness of González-Torres’ loss, showing how tragedy and suffering can be transformed through the element of play.

Portrait of Ross in L.A. (1991) consists of multi-coloured candies put in the corner of the exhibition room. The candies in the artwork serve to provide comfort and joy. However, the pleasurable and playful experience of eating changes when one realizes that one “consumes” the author’s dead lover, indicating the artwork’s sound ability to fuse both suffering and pleasure through the transformative quality of play. These contradictory elements of seriousness and playfulness can be fused into a spiritual bond, which create a basis for the overcoming of the tragedies of our lives and lead us to the deepest meanings of life, through the acts of re-creation, taking, and giving.

The Torres piece “is installed as a portrait of an ideal Ross and it slowly becomes a portrait of the real Ross — one that was slowly decaying.”[2] When the viewer eats the candy, the pleasure of the work is destroyed as it is consumed, but a memory of the man is created. This artwork is therefore not just about ingesting and losing, but also about the act of remembering, and of creating again. Torres recreates a new visual memory of Ross in the participants by reminding them of him again and again. The potential of this artwork is fully actualized when “the viewers slowly but surely destroy the work.”[3] Destruction therefore means creation in González-Torres’ art, and part of dying is for him becoming again.  This awareness makes us conscious of “the preciousness and ephemerality of life” [4]. Moreover, it gives González-Torres a power to identify the sacredness of death, by reminding us that life will not have a meaning without death, just as love will have no meaning without a possibility of loss.

In a 1995 interview in ArtPress, González-Torres said: “I wanted to make an artwork that could disappear…that never existed, and it was a metaphor for when Ross was dying. So it was a metaphor that I would abandon this work before it would abandon me.”[5] Thus González-Torres is giving the audience the whole weight of his partner and expecting them to take his loss from him. Such a therapeutic act gave the author of the artwork a hope that Ross’ death was not useless, that his loss was transformed through the joy of a colourful pile of candies—a spiritual, playful entity.

Related to the act of taking is the act of giving. González-Torres offers a large amount of candies “from which visitors are welcome to help themselves — [and which] are likewise celebrations of generosity and love.”[6] Portrait of Ross therefore reminds us of the Eucharist. This theological reference opens up a new horizon of González-Torres’ piece and underscores a secret sympathy triggered through the sensual experience of chewing. This experience became his essential “key” in reaching the participants. It embodies a direct, playful interaction, which alerts us to the final message of this artwork: playfulness does not stand in opposition to seriousness. They are both creating a spiritual fusion, which, triggered through the element of play, creates a foundation for overcoming the tragedies of our lives. Through tasting the sweetness of the candy and chewing on the bitter loss of the body, on its sorrow and suffering, González-Torres provides an opportunity to chew on the deepest meanings of life.

[1] The Art Institute of Chicago, accessed August 15th 2014, (

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew Harrison, “CANDY SAYS: DEATH AND LIFE IN FÉLIX GONZÁLEZ-TORRES”, 2011, Tedford, in Columns, Culture, Featured, accessed August 15th 2014, (

[4] Ibid.

[5] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed August 15th, 2014, (

[6] San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, accessed August 15th, 2014, (


  • Veronika Hliničanová is currently working towards her PhD in the University of the Arts London, exploring the concept of Urban Sanctuary through a practice-led art research, which aims to create a new urban sensibility in relation to the sacred in London.

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