Using the Piercian model to decode artwork – Amanda

Prompt: Choose an example of an everyday symbolic genre (movie scene/shot; musical work or section of a composition; image or art work as an instance of its genre[s]) as an implementation of one or more sign systems, and using the terms, concepts, and methods in the readings so far, describe as many of the features that you can for how the meanings we understand (or express) are generated from the structures of the symbolic system(s). Can the “Parallel Architecture” paradigm extent to the features and properties of other symbolic meaning-making systems?

What do we think about when we see a piece of candy?

While I was originally going to choose a classical music composition to break down using some of the terms we’ve learned so far, my mind kept wandering back to the symbolism behind a piece of art that I discovered at the Art Institute of Chicago about five years ago. I will attempt to use the Peircean model to describe this piece of art.


Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is a work of modern/contemporary art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996).  It consists of many little candies individually wrapped in bright, shiny, multi-colored pieces of cellophane. Ideally, this piece consists of enough candy to weigh 175 pounds. However, this piece is unique in the way that anyone can go and take a piece of candy from the pile, thus, decreasing its weight (and the size of the pile) over time. However, the pile is always replenished before it runs out completely.

What does this piece of art symbolize? Why does it carry meaning? Why should we care about anything beyond the fact that we get a free piece of candy (or two)? This is an instance when knowledge of the artist, installation, and/or the time in which the installation debuted, is vital in understanding the meaning and symbolism behind the piece.

Created in 1991, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) – our interpretant is an allegorical representation of Gonzalez-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness. The 175-pound pile of candy serves as the representamen, or the sign vehicle of the interpretant, which, understanding the Gonzalez-Torres’s biography and history, would be the “ideal” Laycock in his healthiest state. However, because the piece is interactive and people are encouraged to take a piece of candy from the pile, the pile of candy gradually gets smaller and smaller, once again serving as a representamen which signifies another interpretant, Laycock’s weight loss and suffering, prior to his death, which (I may be going out on a limb here or just incredibly confused) could serve as the interpretant (weight loss and suffering/withering)’s object.


Courtesy of The Gund Gallery/Kenyon College

While the interpreter of this message may initially think that the piece signifies a gradual journey that leads to an empty pile that might signify death, this piece of art involves the act of replenishing. Gonzales-Torres instructed that the piece be constantly refilled, metaphorically granting perpetual life to the piece of art – and to the love for and memory of Laycock and other AIDS victims. So, in this second “phase” of the piece, so to speak, the fact that this piece never visually disappears serves as the representamen of the interpretant, perpetual life, or perpetual memory, or perpetual love – however you want to interpret it.

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Courtesy of: Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

Referring back to Pierce’s triadic model, the line connecting the representamen and the object is dotted, or broken, because it is “intended to indicate that there is not necessarily any observable or direct relationship between the sign vehicle and the referent” (Chandler, 30). If I am actually correct in assigning the Piercian terms to the elements of Gonzalez-Torres’s artwork, this would make sense, because a 175-pound pile of multicolored candy pieces does not seem to have any observable or direct relationship to a healthy man, nor does there seem to be any correlation between a a slowly diminishing pile of candy and a dying person.

As for applying the Parallel Architecture paradigm to this piece of art/this concept, I’m not sure if that’s possible, and if so, how exactly to apply it. I’d love to get everyone’s feedback/thoughts regarding the Parallel Architecture, as well as simply whether the connections I’ve made are valid or really off the wall and illogical!


  • Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.