PRINT February 1993


It is astonishing that turning criminals into sailors used to be regarded as a form of punishment.
—Jean Genet, 1953

THERE ARE THREE SPACES: a dark space, a bright space, and then a darker space. Two domains and a portal. The first is the Dia building itself: the elevator or the stairs leads to the third floor, where stacks of bundled newspapers spill across a wall, sit beneath a closed door. An almost empty series of corners and floor; a place of refuse waiting to be carted away.

Then the bright space, the forest. Your body stands in a clearing. The sun could be pouring in—the heat is relentless, steamy. It seems to alter body temperature and disposition. Two rows of painted-bronze sinks, each recycling its own water supply, jut out of the woods painted on the walls. The water beats against the milky basins, implicating the body, which is reminded of its own functions of release: it’s thirsty, it wants to wash, to reach inside. Maybe to poke a finger into the soft-looking drain, to plug it up, to watch the water flow through the room.

Handmade boxes of rat bait interrupt this feeling of woozy serenity, this baptismal splashing. Placed around the edges of the landscape, they echo a duality seen throughout the installation: the stalker and the prey, the prisoner and the imprisoned. Proplike, the bait boxes whisper a warning of confinement, reinforced by the barred windows cut out of the treetops above the communal setup of crystalline-running sinks. Through these windows, bits of blue sky and deflected light tell of a space beyond the forest walls; make the outside an inside, suggest isolation, and an entire population hidden, or silenced.

The forest is any number of fairy tales askew—pieces of fable seep through the paint, which splinters them, then pastes them back together. The body is in one place, imagining another thing. In the past, Robert Gober’s shows seemed to operate as the scattered parts of one construct; here the breakdown occurs in the viewer’s surfacing memories. There is a kind of narrative treachery at play. Moving through this second room, and also through the third, recalls the seductive mystery of going through your parents’ closet as a child—the guilt-tinged act of wrapping yourself in someone else’s life. Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to give yourself over completely to the control of others; the pleasure of concession.

The lush foliage, towering trees, and rough bark with which Gober paints his maybe prison are bound in artifice, just as Rainer Werner Fassbinder gives the scuffling brothers in Querelle a Technicolor sunset. We fill the room with our own romantic notions of incarceration—good guys and bad, James Cagney’s “top of the world” farewell, top/bottom sex against a stone wall in Todd Haynes’ Poison (derived, like Querelle, in part from Genet), all burned into our collective memory. But these traps are erotic playgrounds, worlds of isolation and fantasy. And though we are standing in a prison, what we consent to as erotic allows us to forgo judgment and the assignation of guilt; just as, given the bloodlust of the “hero” Querelle, we skip the blood and agree to the lust. The poetry won’t allow for a heavy—it lets us eroticize tragedy, which, whenever possible, we’d rather do. Daydreams spurred by films and hardcore poetry (softcore porn), every sensual movement of a Genet memory, all collapse into the palm of Gober’s hand.

So, almost immediately, it is obvious who and where we are when we enter the back room. The temperature drops and the pupils dilate. Physically, the third space is the first. Dark and abandoned, restless, it waits to be explained. Where the forest is aflow with innuendo and stage direction, the third space is a shell, emptied out and shut down. This is where Gober’s lyrical sad-song plays itself out, where absence is endowed with weight and form. In one corner, in a photograph on the top sheet of one of the show’s many assemblages of newspapers, Gober poses as a bride. The transformation appears to center on the desire not so much to slide into the gown as to remove the body from a place of danger to one of presumed safety. This almost vacant back room seems filled, haunted, with miasmic swirls of pent-up touch. If you could, the taste of dried sweat might be fear, might be caution.

Like Lieutenant Seblon, who, enamored, imagines the dirt encrusting Querelle’s bell-bottoms to be the remains of countless blow-jobs, we cast ourselves and the space. Gober’s ultrasanitary urinals were able to conjure up the damp shuffle of footsteps and the dank odor of anonymous encounters, in much the same way that darkness does in this room. Other bodies are borrowed to remember a pleasure you never felt. Other torsos, cooling down in the shallow glow of one light bulb, cannot be touched. Tight jeans cannot be lowered to the knees. Sex in the back room, we are told, can no longer be inserted.

Collier Schorr is an artist and writer who lives in New York.