TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2005

AMERICAN GOTHIC: ROBERT GOBER’S NEW WORK

ROBERT GOBER ONCE DESCRIBED his installations as “natural history dioramas about contemporary human beings,” and, like many dioramas, they mix the real with the illusionistic in ways that both fascinate and disorient us. With his recent project at Matthew Marks Gallery, his first New York show in more than a decade, it was the aftermath of 9/11 that we revisited as if in a waking dream. At stake was the question of how to work through this present-past (Gober began the project soon after the Al Qaeda attacks and completed it soon before the last presidential election)—how to be sensitive, at once, to its human tragedy, political exploitation, and cultural sentiment.

Entering the gallery, we saw a knotty plank of faux wood in unpainted plaster leaning against a wall, an item somewhere between refuse and relic. Then, in the exhibition space proper, were two stacked garbage cans (also in unpainted plaster) covered by a sheet of plywood on which lay the folded shirt of a priest and a newspaper clipping showing a female delegate to the Republican Convention mocking the Purple Heart awarded John Kerry. This makeshift pulpit opened onto two rows of three dirty-white slabs, which, though bronze, were made to look like leftover Styrofoam. Like a plinth, each slab supported a particular object, which, as is typical of Gober, appeared readymade but was handcrafted. First, to the left, was a plank of faux wood in bronze (malformed, it seemed both molten and petrified) and, to the right, a bag of diapers (made of plaster sealed in commercial packaging that was both meticulously reproduced and slightly altered); then a milk crate with three more diaper bags and another plank (also in bronze); and, finally, two glass bowls filled with large pieces of fruit that looked plastic but were beeswax.

The presentation of these things was at once forensic, like evidence laid out in a police warehouse or morgue, and ritualistic: We walked through the rows as down a chapel aisle. And, in fact, on the far wall hung a crucified Christ (the figure was cement, the cross bronze like the planks, with an artificial robin perched on it). Decapitated as if vandalized, this Jesus was flanked, in the customary positions of the two Marys, by spare tokens of suburban life: a white chair that looked plastic but was glazed stoneware (a yellow rubber glove hung from one arm) and a carton of yellow bug-lights in blown glass. Like additional stigmata turned into tacky spouts, the nipples of the beheaded Christ gushed steady streams of water into a round hole cut roughly into the floor. Clearly, Gober was working with the nastier bits of contemporary American kitsch, drawing equally on Wal-Mart goods and churchyard displays.1

To the sides of this brutal crucifix were two doors wedged open a crack to show spaces bright with light. Peeking in we saw white bathtubs with flowing taps occupied, to the left, by two male legs and, to the right, by two female legs (to the side of each tub lay sections of the New York Times given over to the Starr Report). At this point, more than a little puzzled, we turned and noticed, in the opposite corners of the gallery, two torsos in beeswax that mirrored one another, each with one male breast and one female breast. A familiar Gober motif, these bisexed torsos sprouted from the crotch one male leg (dressed with sock and shoe) and three branches in faux wood (bark also appeared on the legs). At this point, too, we saw the four framed pictures hung on each side wall (perhaps like stations of the cross), all made up of individual spreads from the front section of the New York Times of 9/12 (on the east wall the pages were literally reversed, as if seen in a mirror). Gober had drawn over the reports and photos of the Al Qaeda attacks with images (in pastel and graphite) of commingled body parts; it was left to each viewer to decide whether they were male, female, or both. These nude bodies were locked in different embraces that seemed erotic but, in the context of 9/11, might be deathly as well; they were body parts, after all, and some were shown clinging in ways that could suggest grief. The pictures seemed to be keys to the work; yet, finally, they were as enigmatic as any other of its elements.

As usual with Gober, the installation is a broken allegory that both elicits and resists our interpretation; that, materially, nothing is quite as it seems adds to our anxious curiosity. We might draw art-historical connections to the assisted readymades and tableaux of Duchamp (especially Etant donnés), the paradoxical illusions of image and space in Magritte, as well as to various biblical representations (Gober featured a Virgin with a drainage pipe cut through her middle in his 1997 installation at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art), the Bacchus of Caravaggio (recalled by the bowls of fruit), the severed body parts painted by Géricault, and so on. (Brenda Richardson searches widely for such references in her ambitious catalogue essay for the show.) Yet these associations take us only so far, and, as again usual with Gober, they are complicated, even undercut, by allusions to topical events that are both momentous (9/11) and banal (a soak in a bath). In this way different levels of allegorical reading are set up, from the anagogic to the literal, but they are fragmentary, and the real disrupts the symbolic (the tacky elements around the crucifix) just as the symbolic haunts the real (the amorous bodies over the 9/11 reports). A similar confusion disturbs the oppositions in play between male and female, human and inhuman, public and private, and sacred and profane. Almost in a caricature of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the two bathrooms, the emblematic markers of gender difference, seem to govern all the oppositions, yet each binary is broken down, rendered ambiguous: male and female, human and inhuman, are combined in the grotesque torsos; public and private come into contact in the Times pages and through the bathroom doors; and sacred and profane collide in the crucifix scene. In this confusion a subtle ambivalence is created in every object, image, and space.

Gober effectively adapts the intrinsic ambiguity of the still life. Usually an offering of food that is also a withholding (for the food is never real), a still life is a cold gift, a nature that is precisely morte, a vanitas whose beauty stings with a reminder of death. Here the beeswax fruit is artificial, the hardened diapers are ominous (they may recall the rat poison or the kitty litter in other Gober installations), the Styrofoam is unrecyclable, and the wood reified; in fact, Gober shows the entire world changed for the worse. The molten material, mortuary slabs, and commingled limbs evoke a historical hell that combines the postattack space of the Twin Towers with the bomb sites of Iraq: It is both hideous morgue and hallowed ground, wasteland and reliquary. Implied here, too, is a political continuum in which the trauma of the 9/11 attacks was troped by the Bush administration into the triumphalism of the war on terror, replete with the rhetorical coercion of the last election (whereby to oppose Bush was to appease the terrorists, to betray the troops, and so on). And Gober implicates us in this debacle: Again, private and public spheres touch (the bathers next to the crucifix), even interpenetrate (the bodies drawn on top of the newspapers); and we readers of the Times seem passive compared to the implicit crusaders of the headless Christ. The installation felt like the End of Days from the point of view of those left behind.

Gober treats the new kitsch of post-9/11 America as a cultural program imposed on us. Yet he doesn’t mock it: For all the ambiguity of his piece, it contains none of the sophisticated superiority found in camp and little of the secret affirmation sensed in parody. Although kitsch is all about false sentiment, it can possess a damaged authenticity, too, and Gober seems sensitive to the pathos in the expressions of loss after 9/11 (the fruit bowls on the mortuary slabs might call up the flowers, candles, and other mementos left at impromptu shrines that sprang up from Trinity Church to Union Square). In this regard he adapts his aesthetic of mourning vis-à-vis the AIDS epidemic to the terrible aftermath of the attacks; and in his commingling of bodies he also suggests a persistence of love as well as of ruins, of Eros as well as of Thanatos.

At the same time, Gober seems aware of the manipulation at work in this kitsch, of the subtle blackmail that acts through its tokens: the ribbons that exhort us to “remember our troops” (the yellow accents in the installation may key this association), the decals of the towers draped with stars and stripes, indeed the little flags that appear everywhere from antennae to lapels, the shirts and statuettes dedicated to New York City firemen and police, and so on. These last figures have become heroes in the way that workers were in the Soviet Union (or soldiers in any number of regimes); but rather than the Communist production of a new society, they emblematize a Christian story of sacrifice and wrath—of a violation taken to underwrite a far greater violence. Yet, again, Gober doesn’t treat this American kitsch ironically (as, say, Komar & Melamid treated Soviet kitsch); obliquely, he evokes the pathos even as he questions the politics.

Gober prompts us to acknowledge that a new order of totalitarian kitsch is abroad in the culture today. As the Nazis rose to power, Hermann Broch historicized kitsch as the expression of a bourgeoisie caught between an asceticism of puritanical work and an exaltation of romantic feeling; in his view this cultural bind tended kitsch toward a torturous mix of prudery and prurience, which is indeed the character of much Nazi art. A few years later, in 1939, Clement Greenberg specified the capitalist dimension of bourgeois kitsch: In his account it was an ersatz culture produced for a proletariat stripped of folk traditions. Importantly, he also elucidated how kitsch dictates its consumption through predigested forms. Finally, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), Milan Kundera elaborated on this aspect of kitsch in his evocation of an authoritarian society in which “all answers are given in advance.” Could it be that, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, this dictatorial dimension has returned in our own kitsch culture today? Among the signs are these: the trumping of basic civil rights by dubious “moral values”; the brandishing of the Ten Commandments at courthouses in open defiance of the separation of church and state; the obligation of politicians to make a show of faith during any national campaign; the appropriation of “life” (now defined as, optimally, the time between conception and birth and between coma and death) against all those who support personal autonomy on questions of reproduction and dying; and, of course, the clash of all fundamentalists—Christian, Muslim, and other. It is this last connection that Gober captures in the brilliant touch of his acephalic Jesus, for condensed here is not only a reminder of the beheaded hostages in Iraq but also a figure of America in the guise of Christ the sacrificial victim turned righteous aggressor, the one who kills in order to redeem.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004).

NOTE

1. For the US Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale, Gober also orchestrated an installation that mixed the sacred (rooms arrayed like chapels) and the profane (allusions to contemporary events, such as the sodomization of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima with a toilet plunger by New York City police in 1997). The faux Styrofoam plinths appeared there, too (Gober found the original on the beach near his Long Island studio).