Robert Gober

If as Umberto Eco has suggested, the American imagination seeks truth and authenticity, but discovers it only through the inauthentic, then Robert Gober is a thoroughly American artist. His faux readymades engender an extreme form of hyperreality; although he trades on traditional American notions such as puritanism and pragmatism, his investment in these contents is always at the level of the “quasi genuine,” subsumed under an abiding inauthenticity.

This retrospective is populated by a range of semifamiliar objects. Some of them, such as Cat Litter, 1989, look useful. Others, like Bag of Donuts, 1989, seem edible. Still others, such as Two Doors, 1989, appear to be functional. Objects that initially seem ordinary undermine their senses of familiarity by the manner of installation. In Untitled Leg, 1989–90, a limb seems to emerge from the wall. Upholstered ottomans, dog baskets, doors, urinals, a plain dress, and wallpaper have been seemingly promoted to meta-art status, arousing memories of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades.

To some extent, Gober’s exhibited works refer to a preindustrial America. He has said he sees the United States as a land of duplication, simulation, deception, and falseness. He refers to such atrocities as the genocidal extermination of the Indians by the white settlers, who, in stylizing the holiday of Thanksgiving, created a national myth of peaceful coexistence between the red man and the white man. An artist’s work, Gober believes, has to reflect this falseness, either directly through form and content, or through its idealistic position. His work does both. With his apparent affirmation of man-made forms, and the reversal of the genuine and the false—the introduction of a deceptive “quasi genuineness”—Gober opens up an array of problems. The art object is ultimately employed in the service of a surprisingly provocative comment: the falseness of a culture is presented as an authenticity, and the illegitimate as the legitimate.

In Gober’s works, nostalgia, memory, and yearning blend with recognition, loneliness, brutality, terror, childhood dreams, and general astonishment. These are evocative images of the simple, the handmade and not cunningly alienated or estranged objects (or readymades); they are images symbolizing the illegitimate process of American cultural appropriation and the concomitant falseness of the existing culture. They serve the artist, and this is what makes them provocative; they serve an art in which artifice and originality conduct an intense dialogue.

The material deception, which results partly from the way the objects are prepared, is vital in this dialogue. An upholstered ottoman is made of plaster and is therefore hard and uncomfortable, while another one, equally hard, but not cloth-covered, is equipped with a drainpipe and can hardly be meant for sitting. Likewise, the dog basket seems out of place in the museum context, and the warped door unpleasantly contradicts our normal visual habits. It would seem as if Ludwig Wittgenstein’s demand for a viewing that hinges on our own needs has been renewed in Gober’s oeuvre. Feeling all too sure about his objects at first sight, perhaps because they look genuine, we don’t initially even think about an illusion. And, falsely believing that we are surrounded by familiar things, we unwittingly accept a subversive artistic attack on manmade reality. In the artist’s idiom, this means that the feigned reproduction in his artwork wishes to be the original, even though it is simultaneously suggested that every familiar reality is a falsification or at least a deceptive double.

Gober’s art steps away from historical nostalgia and becomes a document of cultural history. Gober’s works allude to the pioneer or early settler—the canonized mythical figures of the American success story. According to legend, this “American Adam” left civilization’s confines behind and began all over again in the new world, where there was nothing. He builds the upholstered ottoman, he weaves the dog basket, he hews the door, he sews the dress, he paints or prints patterns on linen or paper, he constructs the bed and the playpen. Gober is a pragmatist, and in this light, the American reality, as it is or as it has become, provides the basic substance of his strangely inauthentic objects and images. If at first they look genuine, they increasingly elude our grasp and seem to retreat into themselves. For as quasi-genuine objects, they have once again come too close to reality. In terms of art and the history of the object in art, Gober draws a tight line that runs from the American do-it-yourself myth—beyond Minimalist esthetics, beyond the contemporary artistic appropriation of generally familiar things—to an esthetic characterized by objects of simulated usefulness, and finally to one of urgent uselessness that symbolizes the falseness of an entire civilization.

Norbert Messler

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.