Robert Gober

Untitled Breast, 1990, a wax female breast positioned on the wall at eye level, welcomed visitors at the top of the stairway leading to the rooms of the new Jeu de Paume, the site of Robert Gober’s first solo exhibition in France. Though the moulage technique does render an effect of reality, it became quickly evident that this somewhat jaundiced object was not being played for its illusionistic qualities: the surface, painted ocher, was scarcely evocative of real flesh, and the color and texture of the material made one think more of a bar of soap, a suppository, or, of course, a candle.

Leg With Candle, 1991, consists of a limb placed on the floor, jutting out from the wall, as if it had come through from the other side. A candle emerges from the thigh through a hole cut into the pants. The physical repercussions for the spectator are immediate, similar to the reaction one might have in happening upon certain illustrations in a medical encyclopedia. The sense of illness that permeates the piece recalls the wax ex-votos with which numerous Italian churches have been decorated since the Middle Ages (the use of anatomic waxes for teaching medicine began later, in the 17th and 18th centuries). In an essay on the art of portraiture, Aby Warburg recalls, for example, that Florence’s Santissima Annunciata was for a long time filled with a variety of “ voti” (busts, body parts, or entire human and animal bodies). That this candle sprouts from the leg made by Gober does not change the fact that, beyond its material identity, the candle is a sort of model ex-voto, and one of the primary forms of propitiatory offering. Gober’s Untitled Candle, 1991, which stands outside a rectangle of wax planted with human hairs, constitutes a gross but poignant condensation of all these motifs: it melds the threatened body and the prayer for the body’s health.

The largest room—wallpapered with images of a forest (the upper extremities of the trees meeting in an inverted mirror image at mid height as in a kaleidoscope)—had, at its center, an enormous wooden cigar covered with tobacco leaves and fitted with a gold-and-red band—the only piece in the entire exhibition devoid of disquieting resonances. Against the walls, on the other hand, were works such as a body cut off at the waist, the legs and buttocks furrowed with circular tubelike excavations; one particularly repellent detail is the cut of the underwear that follows the contours of these abcesses. A pair of wax buttocks engraved with the score of a sweet air in D major is an image borrowed directly from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, 1505–10. These works, in the mixture of suffering and elation that they figure, bring to mind Franz Kafka’s story The Penal Colony, 1920, in which the condemned are executed by a machine that carves the commandment they broke into their bodies, a horrible torture whose particularity is that it changes at the end into ineffable ecstasy.

The “drains” and the “legs” that punctuate the exhibition suggest that this show was conceived as a unit—a game of echoes and responses. In the room where the “Urinals” and “Sinks” were hung, one could also see Corner Leg, 1991, which comprised a pair (same clothes, same section above the knee) with another limb placed on the floor in the preceding room. This room also contained what is perhaps the most atypical work in the show. Untitled Closet, 1989, is nothing other than that: a vertical built-in cupboard such as one might find in any apartment. This work generated no violently physical effect, just a memory (or a foretaste) of home, which provides a moment of tranquility and calm in this unusually forceful show.

Such work is not easy to situate in the geography of contemporary art, and there is a risk that the French reception of Gober will stress the work’s apparent neo-Surrealism to the detriment of what might be called the “American Gothic” element, which comes from its Puritan background and the tension he sets up with respect to it. The cultural field this work draws upon is, in any case, much broader and less strictly defined than what we commonly classify as Surrealism; that mixture of cruelty and innocence, full of childlike resonances, that one notes in Gober’s work makes one think more of fairytales. Indeed, the motif of limbs emerging from walls recalls a famous scene from Jean Cocteau’s film, Beauty and the Beast, 1946. In the same way, the affinities that Gober’s work presents with American artists of the preceding generation, such as Bruce Nauman (felt in the way he lays out his pieces and articulates the space they occupy) render the interpretation one can have of his work more complex.

Jean-Pierre Criqui

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.