Unlimited Metaphor: Robert Gober at MoMA


At least one person I know hates the way American artist Robert Gober’s work is displayed at his current retrospective at MoMA (up through January 18). Granted, she knows his work far better than I do, but I beg to differ. Perhaps because this exhibition was my first introduction to Gober’s strange sculptures, I appreciated the installations in themselves, not least because they often mimicked the highly specific way that works were originally displayed. The visitor gets a hint of this dynamic in MoMA’s atrium, taken over by a plywood enclosure, resembling a house’s unfinished walls, whose interior is only accessible from inside the exhibition.


Inside the show, careful facsimiles of sinks, impossible cribs, and anonymous limbs are the order of the day. It’s no wonder that Jerry Saltz describes how critics often have no idea what it means. The show’s title–“The Heart is a Metaphor”–speaks to the logic of dreams by which Gober seems to operate. Although it is difficult to nail down any specific meaning, certainly notions of home are evoked by his utilitarian constructions, and of the body by those limbs, often sprouting out of walls seemingly at random. A gay artist in the 80s, his works (such as the non-working sinks or Untitled (1989) featuring an empty wedding dress) are often seen as responding to issues such as the AIDS crisis or gay marriage, and certainly pieces like the chapel interior (Untitled, 2003-2005) in wake of September 11 attacks would also support a socially engaged reading. At the same time, his tubs and sinks suggest a more general cleansing just as his candles might suggest spirituality or hope. Such metaphors are multivalent, and it is hard to limit the possible significances.


What I found most moving about both sinks and limbs is the care with which the artist replicated both. On close inspection, they are clearly handmade, imperfect, but great care was taken with them. It produces an uncanny resemblance to the real, as if the artist was trying to create some Platonic ideal of a sink. At the same time, returning to this mundane object again and again in his work suggests some kind of idée fixe. Like a murderer who revisits the scene of a crime, I wonder what obsession brings Gober back to these things–what sort of totemic status must they have? Humble. Clean. Functionless. Yet there lurks some darker implication and some deeper function. But like in a dream after one wakes, it is unclear what that function is. Rat bait suggests something ugly but unseen. Bars on windows suggest home might be a prison, or a prison a home.



Some of the more complex works, such as an open briefcase on the floor through which flowing water, moss, rocks, and a tiny bit of bare feet can be seen, suggest the elaborate visual pun of Duchamp in Etant Donnes. What is evoked is the Surrealist language of Magritte et al. in contemporary and mundane guise. The domestic objects of sinks and cribs that formed the beginning of Gober’s career are circled back around to at the end of the roughly chronological exhibition, where a dollhouse sits in the middle of the room, a token from Gober’s initial livelihood in New York. The painting below, the final work in the exhibition, continues to focus on houses and interiority, echoed on a larger scale for the viewer, who is inside an exhibition space painted the pale blue of a baby’s nursery. Throughout, the contained spaces suggest a continued interiority of the mind rather than actual space, and these general symbols, rather than feeling like tropes, seem both personal and poetic, if not immediately fixed in specific meaning.



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