PRINT February 1993


ROBERT GOBER’S INSTALLATION AT THE DIA Center for the Arts seems almost civic-minded. We are in a large, brightly lit room. On the wall are eight sinks, all their faucets wide open; the water runs torrentially, noisily, wastefully. Foam accumulates in one sink, presumably from pollution. Stacked here and there are piles of old newspapers baled for recycling. Four—the ancient number of wholeness—is an important figure for Gober: there are four sinks on each long wall, four handmade boxes of Enforcer Rat Bait (one at every other sink) each containing four bait packs, and four small high windows, with bars. These bars name the space: it is a prison.

More: it is a prison of our own making. Tackily painted on the four walls is the kitsch illusion of a forest, all the more sinister for its bland. popular. utopian look. Illustration becomes illusion, even delusion—a typical Gober strategy. We are dead-ended in a walled garden, a claustrophobic paradise peopled with rats whose number must be increasing exponentially, given the multiplying rat bait. These measures to keep the rats at bay can easily backfire. have backfired already: we may so completely poison our environment that we will destroy ourselves before the rats do. The more we try to get out of the grave we have dug for ourselves, the deeper we make it. We are our own worst enemies.

For all his coy and too obvious use of simulation to create an effect of dissimulation, Gober has constructed a strong, comprehensive social statement. Whatever way we turn, he seems to be saying, we’re doomed, though we try to delude ourselves into believing we’re in the Garden. For death—in the form of the invisible rats, the pollution in the water, the banal, superficial look of things, which suggests they lack real being is also in Arcadia. Gober, a slick Poussin, is spelling out our crimes against nature, and against ourselves. The contrast between the magnitude of our folly and its pedestrian detail—rat bait, forests reduced to old newspapers—gives his installation a certain comic hysteria: at first it seems to imply that our social problems are small, then it insinuates they are insoluble. It explodes our shallow world of pretension and self-deceit in the act of describing it.

Gober’s ecological protest is cynical insofar as it suggests that our whole world is garbage. His forest has an apparent brightness, as though some form of packaging were necessary to mute the anxiety and sense of vulnerability caused by our hopeless situation; but in psychosocial fact it is as dark as Dante’s. And we cannot escape from our forest—it is an impasse, and immobilizes us. The piles of New York Timeses seem to whisper, “Give us this day our daily paper, however many trees must be sacrificed for it.” They embody our throwaway world, with its anxiety about being “current” as though currency were the secret of being vital. Our newspapers show how we crank out—manufacture—“current events,” over in a day, to give ourselves the illusion of vitality. By contrast, the trees grow slowly—only to be destroyed in an instant, ground up to make the newspapers.

Through their headlines and photographs, the papers also hurl us randomly into the social arena beyond the prisonlike room. That arena is signaled by the dark “outer space” that Gober has made of the rest of the floor on which he has built his installation. This space is empty but for more rat bait and a few newspaper piles beneath the red bulb of a fire exit (a blind exit, built by Gober; there is no exit from the hell of our society). The newspapers establish a continuity between the dark, “real” social space and the artificially bright “artistic” space. Trapped and lost, we do not see clearly in either.

Reading Gober’s headlines, we become complicit in the social scene, or at least participant observers of it. We are at once actors on the installation’s stage, reading about our own culture and destiny, and anthropologists and sociologists studying the artifacts of an alien, dead society. The effect is subliminally cathartic, for the headlines tell us about the reversal of our world’s fortunes—we ourselves have caused it—and reading them we experience self-recognition. In this sense, Gober’s installation is a pop version of classical tragedy. Its soap opera bathos masks tragic pathos. The headlines seem personal, as though directed at us; though they have lost their immediate relevance, even yesterday’s headlines (a not-too-distant yesterday, since the papers are all from 1992) retain an air of topicality. Already half history, these dailies plunge us into the world’s concerns—and into Gober’s.

The social narrative Gober constructs with his headlines and photographs is no less apocalyptic than the installation as a whole. This is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; polysemy trails off into a free-associational chaos in which the thread of logic is lost, as though it were never there. Some of the newspaper stories are apparently genuine, others are clearly manufactured. The papers are only printed on one side; they are artificial, reproductions of a reproduction, like the rat-bait labels, whose surfaces have the flat sheen of Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. Reproduction is used to confirm an ingrained sense of nihilism.

A cluster of items such as “Hazardous Lead Found in City Water” (in the New York Post), an obituary page, and an advertisement for Saks Fifth Avenue (both New York Times) proves that death lurks in Fun City—although you can forget it by shopping till you drop. The dialectical play of these headlines is muted by an overall sense of absurdity. Similarly, a sequence such as “Inventory Sell-Out” (a Potamkin Cadillac ad), “Vatican Condones Discrimination against Homosexuals,” and “Payments to the Retired Loom Ever Larger” (both New York Times) is in the end radically unintelligible, even if subliminally it makes total sense. Gober wants things both ways: intuitions of collective meaning in a matrix of linguistic chaos, the tension between them reflecting general disintegration and absurdity. The irony of certain inserted images may jump out at us—a photograph that would never ordinarily appear in the Times’ “Art in Review” section, for example, shows the painter David Salle apparently naked below the waist, legs up in a V-for-Victory porno pose, a vulnerable position one of Salle’s females might well take—but overall, Gober gives us a sense of living in a world of dummy meanings, of being caught up in a vacant swirl of signifiers. If anything holds this together, it is Gober’s intense feeling of discontent and of social betrayal.

Gober has always dealt in falseness, duplicity, and sexual innuendo. Surreally exaggerated, his earlier sink works are perverse, abused torsos—their lines and surfaces clean and clear, but their very noticeable drains suggesting dark sexual holes. The new installation seems to be about the impossibility of washing out dirt. (Does Gober have a Lady MacBeth complex?) The invisible guilt in question is of course emotional as well as social. It is also cleaned up by being turned into language—hidden behind signifiers. (The neatly folded newspapers hardly seem to have been used.)

Gober’s sexual obsession, hinted at when he photographs himself in a wedding dress, is explicit in his earlier penis-and-vagina wallpaper. Less explicit is the infantilism of his sense of sexuality the focus on part body objects is infantile, as if the whole body had disappeared. (Actually, it was never there in the first place.) Gober’s penises and vaginas belong to no one in particular. His sink bodies are depersonalized as well, and anonymous. This perverse anonymity, which characterizes Gober’s new installation as a whole, has a peculiarly childish look.

The piece takes us back to the child’s perverse sense of the object, but omits the child’s sense of personal engagement with it. More particularly, it seems to use the child’s perverse delight in things to mask the adult’s sense of their meaninglessness and futility—their sense of anonymity, which subtly bespeaks the feelings of impotence, of the inability to make a difference,that ever more quickly overtake us in modern society. Since Marcel Duchamp, conceptual object art has seemed to invest ordinary objects with meaning, in a childlike way, while in fact leaving them stranded in their materiality. This suggests artists’ disengagement from the world the objects represent, as well as their perverse—but nominal, ironic, playful—engagement with the objects themselves. Gober’s installation is finally a sober construction, suggesting that the feeling that we cannot change society abandons us to apocalyptic fantasies of its collapse. The work also shows that the much touted child’s vision of the world, so inspirational to modern art, has run out of steam—or, rather, has become part of, post-Modern conceptual decadence. Gober began his career making artist’s versions of dollhouses; for both art and society, his Dia doll’s house is a paranoid house of death.

Donald Kuspit is a contributing editor of Artforum. His latest book is The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist, recently published by Cambridge University Press, New York.

Robert Gober’s installation can be seen at the Dia Center for the Arts, New York, until June 20.