BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 94
Featured in
Issue 18

Robert Gober

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 94

Inserted into the floor of the gallery was a gutter. My feet at its edge, I peered over the fouled grate and into the without to see a male torso lying at the bottom of a brick shaft. Strangely, it was clear sewer water that washed over the torso and swirled into the stainless steel sink drain that punctured the heart of the hairy chest. Like a flawless lens the water punctuated what was destined to be overlooked. A scene from Samuel Beckett's Endgame arose in my mind: Clov is peering into the without though his lens.

HAMM: Nothing stirs. All is -.

CLOV: Zer---.

HAMM: (violently) Wait until you're spoken to! (normal voice) All is...all is...all is what?

CLOV: What all is? In a word? Is that what you want to know? Just a moment. (He turns the telescope on the without, looks, lowers the telescope, turns toward Hamm.) Corpsed. Well? Content?

When I was in the gallery, the runoff flowed right around the two nipples which straddled the sickened yellowed torso meaning that but for these lively pink male nipples, useless for sustenance, the body was corpsed.

Thinking through last year's majestic exhibition at New York's DIA Foundation, it becomes clear that Gober is in the midst of exploring the psychological dimension of what it means to be without. As Harold Bloom writes of Lucifer's arrival in Hell: 'There and then, in this bad, he finds his good; he chooses the heroic, to know damnation and to explore the limits of the possible within it. The alternative is to repent...' The well-known sculpture of the hairy leg, clothed in trouser, sock and shoe was never severed by the wall, but resolutely pronounced what it meant to be not inside - not where we comfortably stood, contemplating this leg, or that phantasm secluded beneath the gutter.

Gober's new iconography involves butter. There are two, nearly body-sized, sticks of butter, resting on their open wax wrappers. Peeled and sitting at some distance from one another on the gallery floor, they are laid open in the extreme. Let's not be coy: on the one hand, this is a visual joke. I think back to Gober's Cigar (1991), which troped those visual jokes that wander endlessly around received caricatures of manhood. But it also glowed with the threat of disease, gently radiating the kind of cancer Freud suffered. His butter sculptures bring to mind stale jokes too, but the immediacy of the work quickly turns away from that banter to lay bare its other side. Butter, being fat, is organic, and once lived inside a body, before being funnelled into the realm of the outside, of the dead. And now unprotected by their wrappers, Gober's butter sticks seem as vulnerable as life itself.

The often rehearsed interpretation of Gober's work is as a soliloquy on Aids ('The drains on his figures represent Kaposi's Sarcoma...'), but his sculptures and installations are too supple to be hemmed in by such analyses. In Man Coming Out of Woman (1994) Gober performs a poignant birthing scene. The sick man's hairy leg, trouser and shoe reappear, but this time emerging as a newborn from the wide vagina of the mother, a mother as pale and ill as he. What appears deformed and grotesque is not - this part which is whole has become the main character in Gober's mystery play about reinventing creativity and stout beauty in the face of tragic human loss. The birth itself - a breach, pain incarnate - is what I will call Gober's disobedient and perverse creativity. I am reminded of a comment Gilles Deleuze once made about how he overcame his own education in traditional philosophy: 'What got me through that period was conceiving of history as a kind of ass-fuck, or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception. I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.'

Finally, a grand and indefensible statement. It may not mean much now, but perhaps it will be useful as a marker: As of today, Bruce Nauman is the most influential artist in the United States and one of a few in the world. That being so, Gober is his second. He has, with enormous success, misunderstood Nauman's legacy of the perversely serious, and of truly secluded meaning. He is, to paraphrase Bloom, a strong poet because he has misread another strong poet in order to clear an imaginative space for himself.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.