My Fayum…

Sandra Kontos moved to Athens in 1993 to pursue her studies in archaeology and photography. Photography and archaeology share many qualities, namely they both record or archive the past. It was during this time she discovered the Fayum portraits (first and second centuries A.D.) They fascinated her, “Here I found myself gazing directly into the eyes of people from the ancient world.” Captivated by their melancholic beauty and the mystery surrounding their ancient faces, dress and jewellery, Kontos intensely studied these exquisite portraits. The portraits accompany mummified bodies and were painted on wooden panels by anonymous artists. Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis writes, “Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence.” [1]

Almost a decade later, whilst studying at UNSW COFA, Sandra Kontos experimented with Polaroid transfers. This photographic image transfer process was time consuming and produced fragile unpredictable images. The materiality of the results was a stark reminder of the textured surfaces of the Fayum portraits. Kontos paired the portraits with tea stained replicated maps of the Fayum region. The Fayum “… as it appeared c.1800, when it was surveyed by Napoleon’s Commission. This map, from the Descriptionde l’Egypte, vividly suggests the lush cultivated land, with its small fields, surrounded by rocky escarpments.” [2] This was a definite nod to her Athens days and the magnificent lessons of her archaeological teacher Aggeliki Papadopoulou. Pairing the portraits with the map was also a way of memorializing the dead; of establishing a sense of place for those depicted. An act of making the absent present.

With the discontinuation of Polaroid, this series of portraits now sit precariously in the digital age. The colours of Polaroid 669 film and the tea stained paper stock are unreproducible. These portraits are what Kontos loves about analogue photography. “The process is slow and vivid, random elements are revealed and they are unique objects imbued with the hand of the artist.” Geoffrey Batchen talks about rediscovering photography in the digital age. Sandra Kontos’ photographs are chemical events, actions that occur directly onto the paper stock. [3] The images are made not taken.


Sandra Kontos, Fayum Portrait, 2004


[1] The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt, accessed 22 December 2015,

[2] Doxiadis, Euphrosyne, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p. 228.

[3] Batchen, Geoffrey. Blindness and Insight: Photography and/as Ruin, Symposium – The Alchemists: Rediscovering Photography in the Age of the Jpeg, SCA Auditorium, Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, 5 December 2015, Keynote Address.


“My work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work deals with issues relating to life, gender, sexuality and death. All these things happen to the body but no bodies as such appear in his work. In Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1990, the artist uses the body of his lover Ross as a metaphor, which is signified in the “ideal” weight of candy used for the work. Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, appeared in several locations on billboards in the New York area. The body is absent yet alluded to in the unmade bed. Audience participation is an integral element to Gonzalez-Torres’ work. The artist’s choice of displaying such intimate imagery in a public form relates to his resistance of separating private and public domains. The Word Portraits further establish Gonzalez-Torres’ ability to create the historical meaning of an individual beyond representation of the body.

161459_2809251Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990

Felix Gonzalez-Torres avoids representation. Candy in this case becomes “saturated with personal association, memories and emotions.” (1) The body of Ross, his lover, is the subject of the work. Ross’s body is represented in the “ideal” weight of the candy, this is 175 pounds, which is stipulated in the certificate of authenticity. The candy is either piled in a corner or spread out in “carpet like landscapes.” (2) “The spills appear as parodies of abstract, geometric sculpture.” Gonzalez-Torres described them as subverting the neutrality of minimal sculpture by annexing issues that derive from his biography.” (3)

As a metaphor the candy is consumed, the viewer sucks on someone else’s body. Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work becomes part of so many other people’s bodies…” (4) It is at this point, when the candy is consumed, that the work is complete. Charles Merewether writes that the candy represents, “not only an eating away of the body, but a sign of regeneration, as in the symbolic eating of Christ’s body and the miraculous giving of life.” (5)

Apart from addressing consumption and challenging galleries, the political ramifications of this work are more pertinent because Ross was a homosexual man dying of AIDS. Thus the work, “… confronts visitors with the issue of homophobia and their fear of contact with HIV carriers.” (6)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres said, “in a way, this letting go of the work, this refusal to make a static form, a monolithic sculpture, in favour of a disappearing, changing, unstable, and fragile form was an attempt on my part to rehearse my fears of having Ross disappear day by day right in front of my eyes…” (7) Freud wrote that we rehearse our fears in order to lessen them. By relinquishing his control over the work and allowing audiences to touch, eat and possess his work, Gonzalez-Torres rehearsed the imminent loss of Ross. “Memory offers a path back to the other side of the line between life and death: it is all that remains after the disappearance of the body.” (8) The replenishment of the candy memorializes the subject.

FGT_Manhattan_sized-643x428Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard, Untitled (Bed) 1991, is a black and white image in soft focus of the artist’s unmade bed. The impressions of bodies are left behind in the indented pillows and rumpled sheets. The absence of any accompanying text offers no explanation for the image by the artist. Yet, this vacant space openly invites the viewer to enter the work based on their own memories of loss, absence, leaving and grief. (9)

For Gonzalez-Torres, “it is a wrenching, intimate depiction of his loss.” (10) The unmade bed becomes a metaphor for the love and loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. Most viewers were unaware of the artist’s biographical information and would therefore construct meaning based on what was personally relevant to them. The unmade bed a place of pleasure and intimacy, or of absence and loss. “Inviting audiences to remember moments of closeness and separation, this image is a passage linking the particular losses we experience with a culture of collective grief… Although the bodies are gone, memories sustain the experience, allow the feelings these bodies generated- the warmth and passion- to be revealed, recalled, recorded.” (11)

The audience participates to in the meaning of the work. (12) Gonzalez-Torres measured his work against the same questions, “I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without a public these works are nothing, nothing… I need the public to complete the work…” (13) Gonzalez-Torres felt that collaboration with the viewer was the force behind the work giving it meaning and emotion. Hence, Duchamp’s 1957 speech on the creative act is fully embraced by Gonzalez-Torres. Duchamp claimed that there were two poles in the creation of a work of art: the artist and the spectator. (14) Another repercussion to the artist’s method is Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author “… and [the] fundamentally emancipatory idea of the birth of the reader into the structure.” (15) Although Gonzalez-Torres adapts devices from the Minimalist vocabulary, his work is distinguished from it because his personal experience is transcended to become universally valid. (16)

Gonzalez-Torres said, “my work is all my personal history… I can’t separate my art from my life.” (17) The work was first displayed simultaneously at the Museum of Modern Art and twenty-four billboards around New York. By displaying such intimate and private experiences in a public form that typically promotes consumer products, Gonzalez-Torres dissolved the boundaries between public and private space.

George Chauncey states that, “there’s no queer space; there are only spaces used by queers or put to queer use. Space has no natural character… no intrinsic status as public or private.” (18) For a homosexual man, the ramifications of whether there can be a separation between private and public space are enormous in light of restrictive and repressive legislation ruled by the U.S Supreme Court in 1986, “which denies same-sex couples rights to a private sphere.” (19) By displaying such a deeply personal and emotional image on billboards around New York, Gonzales-Torres perpetuated what George Chauncey argues is a tactic used by gay men, “… to claim space for themselves in the face of a battery of laws… designed to exclude them from urban space altogether.” (20) This reciprocal relationship quantifies Gonzalez-Torres choices. The artist said his choice for the billboard was an easy one. He wanted to distance himself from his bed. With Ross’s death, his bed has become a source of pain and grief, especially at night.

Ann Goldstein clearly states:
(…) the nature of his work in general (…) subtly yet emphatically intensifies one’s own self awareness, subjectivity, and sense of personal history. In effect, his work insists upon the inclusion of the complexities of those areas most preciously protected or deeply repressed – it sets up a conflation of public and private, and the personal with the professional. (21)

The artist insisted that an individual could not be isolated from the socio-political structure that governs our world. Conversely, politics has always had ramification upon every individual. As a homosexual man, Gonzalez-Torres was directly effected by public policy as it impacted on his private life. His choice to present his unmade bed in public domains affirms his works ability to provocatively comment on socio-political issues.

Gonzalez-T_portrait_2011-repl_colorFelix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait.

Gonzales-Torres’ amalgamation of public and private life is evident in his Word Portraits. They are also examples of the use of text as a metaphor for more than just the body, but for a life lived. Gonzalez-Torres would collaborate on commissions with the prospective owner asking them for their formative experiences and the concurrent dates. (22) Gonzalez-Torres intercepted this information with important public events that he believed undoubtedly contributed to their personal history. Thus, the portraits positioned the owner within a personal and a collective history. Gonzalez-Torres changed the order of the events, which coincides with the nature of memory as fragmented. He also included events before birth and places never visited by the owner. He felt that the portraits were more than a life, they were a history, “to sense our connectedness with the rest of the world.” (23)

The following Word Portrait is Gonzalez-Torres’ from the Brooklyn Museum commission of 1989. The intention of the museum’s curator was to blur the line between public and exhibition space. This Word (Self) Portrait was installed in a small annex near the elevators. It was painted in light blue and ran along the top of the wall in a single line. (24)

Red Canoe 1987 Paris 1985 Blue Flowers 1984 Harry the Dog 1983 Blue Lake 1986 Interferon 1989 Ross 1983

In Untitled (Ross in L.A) 1990, Gonzales-Torres uses candy to signify the loss of his lover Ross to AIDS. By avoiding representation in Untitled (Bed) 1991-92, the artist adopts devices from Minimalism. Yet, he subverts them and imbues them with personal significance. The universality of the signs invites the viewer to participate, to complete the work of art. Gonzales-Torres transfers the private into the public domain in a calculated response to the restrictive legislation imposed upon the homosexual body. In his Word Portraits, Gonzalez-Torres’ combines the personal and collective history of an individual based not on physical characteristics but on lived experiences.


1. D. Elger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cantz Verlag, 1997, p. 107.

2. ibid., p. 44.

3. L. Weintraub, Art on the Edge and Over, Art Insights, In., 1996, p. 115.

4. Elger, op. cit., p. 92.

5. C. Merewether, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 70.

6. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 115.

7. ibid.

8. R. Ferguson, ‘The Past Recaptured’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 32.

9. B. Hooks, ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ in Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Russell Ferguson ed., 1994, p. 47.

10. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 116.

11. Hooks, op. cit., p. 47-48.

12. Merewether, op. cit., p. 61.

13. Elger, op. cit., p. 44.

14. ibid., p. 106.

15. ibid.

16. ibid., p. 81.

17. Weintraub, op. cit., p. 110.

18. G. Chauncey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets,’ in Stud; Architecture of Masculinity, Joel Sanders ed., Princeton Architectural Press, 1996, p. 224.

19. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

21. Chauncey, op. cit., p. 224.

21. Elger, op. cit., p. 18.

22. Elger, op. cit., p. 51.

23. ibid.

24. ibid., p. 50.


Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Ross in L.A.) 1990

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Bed) 1991-92

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Word Portrait

A photograph reveals more than what is remembered.


This photograph from my childhood is one that I have intimately studied on many occasions. Drawing from Benjamin’s notion of ‘unconscious optics,’ the lens captures a significant moment in this photograph, it is somewhat discernible to the eye. It is this element that raises questions relating to photography’s ability to capture truth, reality and the self.

The photograph from my childhood, was taken in 1979 by the seaside in Greece. It was taken with a film camera, so it is grainy and coupled with the texture of the paper, the fuzziness of memory seems amplified. The photograph enables me to distinctly remember the seaside town and it was December so there was a slight chill in the air. I wore a cream cardigan that my mother had knitted for me. I always wanted her to change the buttons to weaved leather ones that resembled the buttons on my father’s tweed jackets. I sit with my back to the seaside with a pot of pink geraniums on a wall behind me at my shoulder. But this photograph reveals more than is actually remembered because from here I have accumulated many years of memories related to this nine year old child. I see that I feel a little uncomfortable, shy even, I have never liked my picture being taken. My eyes staring straight at the lens, the look on my face and my posture reveal a modest uneasiness as my shoulder is ever so slightly raised.

I am drawn to this photograph because it captured that precise moment of me lifting my shoulder. Benjamin writes, “the invisible inside the visible, those bodily movements that are too minute to be discerned by the human eye and too automatic to impinge on human consciousness.” The cameras revelation, these “unconscious optics,” are crucial if a photograph is to resonate. Hirsch writes, “evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye.”

I often look at this photograph because of this unease. I was a nine year old girl and from where I stand now, I know it was before my sexuality had revealed itself. So why this unease? I know more about this girl from here than what the photograph is actually presenting to me. Cadava writes, “Rather than reproducing, faithfully and perfectly, the photographed as such, the photographic image conjures up its death.” I comprehend that my experience by the seaside, because it was photographed, becomes estranged from the actuality of my memory of it. But is it the death of that young girl? Perhaps that is something I cannot bear. One question continues to interests me to no end, where is that young girl?


Benjamin, W, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in J Curran et. al. (eds.), Mass Communication and Society, Edward Arnold, London, 1977.

Cadava, E, ‘Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History’, Diacritics, vol. 22, no. 3-4, Fall / Winter 1992, pp. 87-93.

Hirsch, M, Family Frames Photography Narrative and Postmemory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1997.

Observations of the Author (using Christian Boltanski’s, ‘What they Remember’ as a model)


  • On the back of the Artemis pendant she wears around her neck, the words “Courage” are engraved.
  • The middle finger of her right hand is slightly crooked. She broke it as a child. Riding her bike she scrapped her hand against a wall. She flicked her hand clicking it back into shape. Too scared to tell her mother of the accident, she hid her hand & swollen finger from her for weeks.
  • She loves the smell of cigar smoke. It reminds her of her father.
  • 11 September 1999.
  • She nearly kissed a girl on a summer’s night in tall grass. The girl wore a red dress.
  • Whenever she is in Athens she visits the Acropolis. She often thinks about how many people have walked the same footsteps she is now over the ages.
  • She has eliminated black from her wardrobe preferring earthy colours; greens, browns and blues.
  • She has an alter ego named Roxy Manet. Roxy wears black.
  • She is very selective about the people she spends time with.
  • She loves the quiet of the mornings, often reading and listening to classical music.
  • She is an artist, mostly working in photomedia.
  • Her childhood was happy.
  • On special occasion’s her mother & siblings would have dinner at her father’s restaurant. She often ordered fresh strawberries & cream for dessert. Her father always wore a suit and tie.
  • She devours books.
  • She has very eclectic taste in music.. from Preisner to Radiohead.
  • She laughs when her friend J says, he’s “gagging” to see her.
  • She carries a lot of things in her bag.
  • She used to wear a ring on her ring finger which was given to her on Xmas Eve 2004. She no longer wears the ring. Sometimes she feels her ringless finger, for a few seconds her heart sinks.
  • One night she especially delighted in seeing her beloved dog’s sausage silhouette in the lightly dimmed kitchen.
  • She wears her hair short.
  • She loved riding her bike as a child.
  • 6 August 2012.
  • She loves the colder months of the year and contemplates her mother’s maiden name which translates as “without winter” from Greek.
  • Once she lay on the grassy hillside full of wild flowers at the stadium in Ancient Olympia. It was a warm day in Spring. She remembers smoking a cigarette and looking at the patterns the clouds made in the sky.
  • 22 August 2010.
  • She had a Burmese cat named Kitty Scout. He was named after a character in one of her favourite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
  • She is very sentimental, often keeping what may be insignificant to most.
  • Once a girl gave her honeysuckle to taste. With that gesture, the drop of sweetness in her mouth, her heart swelled and came undone.
  • She enjoys moments of solitude.
  • Her memory is a little scattered at times which she often blames on a period in her life when she smoked a lot of pot.
  • She collects decorative boxes.
  • As a child she loved playing the piano and often memorised long pieces because she couldn’t read music very well.
  • She often photographs clouds like Alfred Stieglitz did.
  • She wants to hike to St George, a church at the top of the mountains in Nestani, Greece… and she finally did on 2 May 2016.
  • Most of her photographs are drawn from memories, perhaps they are too overwhelming to keep inside, she needs to archive the emotion by making a photograph of it.. those impossible bodily experiences, to “materialise memory” as Zelizer eloquently puts it.
  • She has a scar on her right knee from a moped accident in Santorini. After the fall, her first words were, “Is my camera OK?”
  • She can recite Lord Byron’s, “She Walks in Beauty”.