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Issue 200

Eroticism, Anger and Hope in the Work of Robert Gober

‘To me, it offers a particular emotional experience – something like joyful grief’

BY Laura McLean-Ferris in Fan Letter | 11 JAN 19

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1995-97, installation view at Schaulager, Basel. Courtesy: the artist and Schaulager, Basel; photograph: Tom Bisig

There’s a special hole in my heart for Robert Gober’s work. That is to say, a special kind of enthusiasm. Untitled (1995-97) is a complex, major installation that was first exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1997, and is now permanently installed at the Schaulager in Basel. To me, it offers a particular emotional experience – something like joyful grief – that I’ve wanted to return to many times since I first saw the work in 2007.

A concrete cast of a life-sized Virgin Mary, her arms benevolently outstretched, presides at the centre of a large grey room, with a large culvert pipe thrust violently through her middle. To her sides are two open leather suitcases while, behind her, water rushes down a wooden staircase from a doorway above, flooding a pool underneath the exhibition space. Every object in the space stands on a drain cover, through which one can glimpse the subterranean rock pool beneath, scattered with wishful coins. Also seen in the space below are the bare legs of a man standing in the water, who appears to be holding a baby, its tiny legs and feet dangling. Slide down the drain, or the sinkhole, and one finds some brightness, like love or hope, amongst the crabs, rocks and seaweed.

Read through the concerns of Gober – a gay, former-Catholic artist, living through the AIDS crisis in America – the work expresses very particular forms of eroticism, anger, grief and hope. The holes in my body and soul are different. Yet, the presence of a watery, hopeful space that twinkles and splashes always offers the chance for repair. That’s why the work makes me cry. These are transitional objects, to use D.W. Winnicott’s term, creating a twilight space between personal psyche and shared reality. A body – and soul – can be experienced in parts, and then recovered as whole. Untitled drove its own little culvert pipe through me, so that I could be a conduit too.

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in Turin, Italy.