Félix González-Torres. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991)
In 1991, the Cuban-American artist Félix González-Torres chose two ordinary clocks and placed them side-by-side, just touching, for his work Untitled (Perfect Lovers). The batteries that power each clock are inserted simultaneously, and the clocks are set in synchrony, yet the naturally uneven lifespan of the batteries means that one clock will stop before the other. González-Torres’ partner Ross Laycock died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991, and many of the artist’s works can be read as elegies to that lost love. The clocks’ ticking is like a heartbeat. Their direct allusion to time slipping away makes the work a contemporary memento mori, a reminder of death.
The two faces of the clocks are at the same time identical and not: their almost unnoticeable discrepancies remind us that a couple is a harmony built of difference. The trick of seeming eternal, embodied here in the continual sweep of the hands of the clock, is a reassuring lie told by works of art. The clocks might not stop, although we know they must.