ne sunny morning in late May, I piled 275 fortune cookies in metallic scarlet wrappers on to a bench in front of my home. They took up the same amount of space a small curled-up person might. The street is busy with foot traffic and I wondered if anyone passing would be bold enough to take one. It requires trust to accept something from a stranger, even without Covid-19. Given the risk of infection, I imagined most of the cookies would remain where I’d placed them, a shiny red sculpture – until 5 July, when I was due to remove them.
That same week, piles of fortune cookies appeared at hundreds of locations worldwide: on the waterfront in Havana; at an airport terminal in Shanghai; in a convenience store in Brooklyn; scattered through a forest in Finland; sitting on a modified postbox in Iowa; stabled with a horse called Fargo in Florida; put in a closed museum in Maryland; in a Rio de Janeiro flat overlooking Ipanema Beach; and at a community kitchen in Buenos Aires.
In the weeks since, the cookies have been dispersed, carried off, consumed, their fortunes read and their wrappers discarded. My batch lasted three days. On 14 June, they and the other piles around the world will “regenerate” and the process will start again.
This is not a social experiment. Or perhaps it is. But primarily, it’s a work of art called Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner) by the late Cuban-born American artist Félix González-Torres. The global exhibition of this single work has been orchestrated, in the space of three weeks, by a team led by his gallerist, Andrea Rosen. In 1990, Rosen opened her space in New York’s Soho with a González-Torres show. After 27 years, she closed the gallery to focus on his estate and namesake foundation.
Watching galleries and museums struggling to establish online content in the early days of lockdown, it occurred to Rosen that González-Torres’s work could help people hungering for encounters with art in actual physical space. “It is possible,” she says, “to have a real experience with his work in isolation.”
Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner) exists as a set of core tenets. It is built anew with every showing. Rosen’s team sent 1,000 invitees a list of parameters for installing the work, such as: “Each participant will source the fortune cookies that they use.” González-Torres stated that whenever possible “fortune cookies with optimistic fortunes should be used” and “individuals must be allowed to take pieces from the work”. Participants were asked to share photos and thoughts, too.
The work was first shown, or staged, in 1990, two years after González-Torres’s lover Ross Laycock was diagnosed as HIV positive. Laycock died in 1991. Later, González-Torres would describe how it had been to watch illness consume the body of the man he loved: “This beautiful, incredible body, this entity of perfection just physically, thoroughly disappearing right in front of your eyes.”
In 1988, González-Torres started producing a series of perfect, beautiful forms that would disperse and disappear. Stacks of posters, installed in a gallery as minimalist blocks, would shrink over the course of an exhibition as visitors helped themselves. Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner) was itself followed by similar works: piles of wrapped sweets, in various configurations, offered for the taking.
Some, such as Untitled (Lover Boys) and Untitled (Ross) commenced with a weight of sweets relating to a body. Untitled (Ross) was 81kg, the same the weight as González-Torres’s dead lover. Lover Boys was the weight of two adult men combined. This creates a relationship between the sweets and the men’s bodies. You are invited to eat them, with all the sexual suggestion that carries. There is, too, a hint of the Catholic sacrament: take, eat, this is my body.
The cookies also carry hope: a promise of future events in the message they contain. I discussed all this with my neighbours while I watered window boxes and wrestled bins. I told them I thought this was a work about infection and the taboo of touch: in 1990, it was the fear of Aids. Now, in the midst of another health crisis, it takes on new associations.
I’ve been in touch with artists who feel uncomfortable about the project’s global manifestation. Some find it too public and performative. They dislike the show-off Instagram posts from participants cooing over the honour of being invited. One said that it felt like a marketing exercise; another that he wanted to know how Rosen decided who to invite. I asked Rosen. She reeled off a long list: collectors, curators, people who had posted about González-Torres on Instagram, family, friends, attendants and administrators who had overseen his work in museums. “We worked really hard to make it as diverse as possible,” she says. “But it had to be people we had some kind of access to.”
I write at a table overlooking the street. During Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner), I could hear neighbours proudly explaining the work to friends. Sometimes people came to fill carrier bags. An elderly Asian couple laughed at the fortune cookies, then noticed the Jeremy Deller poster in my window saying “Thank God for Immigrants” and decided the two were connected. Scandinavian teenagers dared one another to take a cookie then ran off giggling. Strangers took photos. I had no control over how the artwork was understood or received. Everyone who encountered this unexpected cookie mountain in these weird times interpreted it their own way. I hope, on some level, they understood the gesture as I think González-Torres intended it: beautiful, generous and bittersweet.