Academic Writings

On Robert Gober-Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Robert Gober – Creating the Extraordinary Ordinary

By utilizing everyday objects and referring to the routines of daily life that are often culturally and/or sexually loaded as well as oddly manipulated, configured, and/or presented, Robert Gober taps into the deep memories and unique subjectivities of the viewers. In addition, he addresses questions of how they come to inhabit themselves physically, mentally, socially, and sexually and demonstrates that this process cannot only be puzzling, perplexing, and confusing, but also quite pleasurable and sensuous. This makes his work important to me not only as a person but, more importantly, as an artist.

The majority of the objects that appear in Robert Gober’s work repetitively flow from one primary source: The Slides of a Changing Painting that he produced in 1982 and 1983 while in his late twenties. During a one-year period, Gober painted and repainted a small board and photographed the changing image. This single painting thoroughly explores a number objects such as torsos, cups, sinks, and drains and allows them to metamorphose from the structural to the organic to the surreal. A male torso is magically transformed into a landscape through a series of paintings that excavates the chest with lines and roads and lays plumbing pipe across the expanse of skin-turned-to-terrain. Nipples are transformed from marks to holes to drains windows. That Gober’s work for the next two decades could spring from the hundreds of images included in this single painting is puzzling until one realizes that Gober was exploring a multitude of objects in an attempt to discover “which images might be his and which might be lasting” (Simon, 13). This concept strikes a nerve in me as well as, I suspect, many other young artists who are attempting to create original works of art only to have a string of long-existing works cited as similar. Indeed, Gober’s Slides contain many images that definitely are not “his.” For instance, the coffee cup he includes in the Slides is a signature image of painter Elizabeth Murray, for whom Gober worked as a studio assistant. His cropped bodies and houses share a connection with Joel Shapiro’s sculptures, and other images and formats share direct references to Michael Hurson and Jonathan Borofsky. But instead of appropriating the images of the artists he admired and was influenced by during his schooling, in Slides Gober was working through a variety of images in an effort to discover which, if any, he could claim as uniquely his own. As the past twenty years as a renowned artist attest, Gober’s quest was successful. Among other images, Gober staked claim to the utility sink, crib, and cropped bodies.

I suspect, however, that Gober’s claim to these objects was more visceral than conscious. In fact, Gober has said that his sculptural objects begin as “an image, perhaps a memory or a fantasy” (Foster, 1) that is then nurtured within his body and brain until he feels it is resonant enough (with himself as well as others) to merit objectification. And resonate they do. How oddly surprising it is to confront Gober’s commonplace objects and have them stir up such “confused and ambivalent feelings” that one is “thrown into confrontation with their own imagination, their own neuroses, fears, phobias and fantasies” (David, 40). It is, after all, simply a sink or a leg or a crib. But, of course, these commonplace objects are not simply what they are; they seem to share something in common with all people yet nothing in common with any two individuals. “These very free associations to personal remembrances, imagination and scattered elements of collective memory or unconscious, sometimes throw viewers into a state of perplexity or confusion, and it becomes obvious that, despite our illusions and identity pressures, they share neither the same sensitivities nor similar past experience” (David, 42). If one concept has thoroughly penetrated my mind and emotion during the past two semesters, it is the fact and the power of unique subjectivities. Gober’s work appeals not only to individual subjectivities but forges deep connection with the collective unconscious. He does this through the construction, distortion, and display of the commonplace, but further, he transforms the commonplace into an enigma.

A child of the Fifties, Gober matured in times when people were waking up from the American dream. While his objects evoke nostalgia, it is a nostalgia steeped in bittersweet. The idealized objects are slightly (or grossly) dysfunctional, off-limits, set apart. His signature porcelain sinks have an autobiographical connection; both of his grandmothers used them, his father installed one in his basement shop, and the sink in Gober’s first studio – a storefront laundry – had one. Viewers feel an instant connection with the sink as an object; it is familiar either actually or subconsciously. It is like meeting someone they know or have known. Upon closer inspection, however, they find that this familiar object has changed. Something is missing, puzzling, cannot be explained. They sense it, feel it. Instead of providing answers, Gober’s objects create questions. “In a sense this is the work of his work: to sustain enigma” (Foster, 2). The sinks become complex individuals with histories, secrets, sexuality, and senses of humor. Gober couples (Double Sink), bends (Two Bent Sinks), extends (Silly Sink), flattens (Flying Sink), mutes (Silent Sink), plugs or castrates (Untitled), deconstructs (Basinless Sink and Disappearing Sink), and/or buries (Two Partially Buried Sinks) them, and makes them emotional (Sad Sink), disturbed (Split Up Conflicted Sink), or introverted (The Subconscious Sink). These individual sinks speak individually to each individual viewer, providing some – but never all -- information. It comes as no surprise that, depending on the viewers’ subjectivities or intersubjectivies of the moment, responses to Gober’s work cover a wide range. Viewers are as apt to be puzzled and perplexed as they are to be enlightened and delighted. In fact, “it is the very doubleness that is of interest: homey and unhomey, unsettling and humorous, shocking and banal, unique and repetitious” (Molesworth, 2).

In fact, Gober believes that it is essential for each viewer to interact with, to complete, his extraordinarily ordinary objects. “They’re objects you complete with your body, and they’re objects that, in one way or another, transform you,” he says in a 1991 interview with Joan Simon. “Like the sink, from dirty to clean, the beds, from conscious to unconscious, rational thoughts to dreaming; the doors transform you in the sense…of moving from one space through another.” But even in the process of transformation, the objects refuse to allow the viewer to feel completely transformed. As William V. Ganis said in a 2000 review of Gober’s exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, “these work communicate Gober’s moral that absolute meanings, though they, too, are desired, are ultimately unattainable.”

Gober’s utilization of the drain is an excellent example of the complexity embedded in a common object, and how it can evoke such deep and resonating responses and address questions of how we come to inhabit ourselves and form or reject identity. Helen Molesworth identifies four resonances of the drain in Gober’s work. First is the drain as “a metaphor for the body, through which the body is presented as an open system regulated by various flows” (Molesworth, 2). Gober inserts drains – or eliminates them from – various objects including sinks, bodies, and walls. In Untitled (1991), Gober inserts multiple drains in the underwear-clad lower torso of a man referring to “the simultaneous pleasure and anxiety offered by bodily orifices, the drains of the body. This work is as humorous as it is disturbing, for while it is a body made too porous, too contingent, it is also a body born of the desire many of us have for identities that are experienced as fluid, infinitely permeable.” (Molesworth, 2). The second resonance Molesworth attributes to the drain relates to its mechanics. Drains play a mundane – but important -- role in the everyday life of human beings. Bodies and machines are closely allied in the utilization of indoor plumbing; the body maintaining and gaining benefit from the drains while the drain gains its purpose and function from the body. Deleuze and Guattari theorize in their manifesto Anti-Oedipus that “desire is structured by …continual and changing connections, which they term ‘hooking-up’…They posit that desire has a mechanistic and additive logic, governed by flows, stops and starts, and continuums.” Molesworth believes that Gober’s sculptures, “with their odd conjunctures of bodies and objects…seem to embody the potentially humorous nature of such a model of desire, as these hookups are both implied and literalized in his work.”

Desire also seems connected to the third resonance of the drain: Its temporality. As Molesworth says, “The stops and flows of the drain, and of desire, suggest a subject in a state of flux, a subject continually altered, whether dramatically or subtle, by the objects that surround him or her.” This ties directly into Gober’s stated contention that the viewer must interact with and complete his objects. The final resonance of the drain is its location. The drain is a visual marker between public and private. But more importantly, according to Molesworth, it “establishes the very contiguous nature of public and private, the permeability between inside and outside, private and public, between oneself and others.” These four resonances of the drain, Molesworth concludes, are tightly bound with “the fictions of public and private that structure our notions of identity and desire” and Gober’s use of the commonplace drain considers “how identity and desire are formed as much through habit and boredom as they are by traumatic encounters.”
What seems to be of greatest importance here, however, is not that habit and repetitious everyday activities structure our identities, but that these mundane activities actually free us from our identities because they can be completed so completely mindlessly. Gober uses common objects such as the drain to emphasize that the pleasures and problems of desire, humor, the body, and identity exist not only in fantasy but also – and primarily -- in everyday life. His work emphasizes that we are whom we are largely because of our everyday routines and habits, and he validates everyday existence as being as puzzling and perplexing as fantasy. Even sexuality assumes a casual character when presented in Gober’s work. His erotic objects assume the same enigmatic ordinariness as his non-sexual objects. Although Gober’s work includes nude male torsos, half-female/half-male torsos, and a collection of male legs, it lacks any hint of sexual scandal. As Jed Perl writes, “Gober will present a relatively attractive yet by no means extraordinary body as an erotic icon.” His male/female torso is less about difference than it is about similarity. “…He is saying that we are all basically the same, that too much can be made of male-female differences” (Perl, 4).

In Gober’s exploration of the everyday, he values emotion over concept and insists on radical subjectivity. Just as Gober says his sculptures are “memories remade, recombined and filtered through” his current experiences, the viewer filters Gober’s culturally and/or sexually loaded everyday objects through the filter of his or her unique subjectivity. In connecting with Gober’s extraordinarily ordinary objects, viewers connect with their own extraordinarily unique subjectivities

Works Cited
David, Catherine. Recent Ruins. “Robert Gober” exhibition catalogue for the Museo Nacional
Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid, 1991.
Foster, Hal. An Art of Missing Parts. “Robert Gober” exhibition catalogue for The Museum of
Contemporary Art. Los Angeles, 1997.
Ganis, William V. “Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing” exhibition catalogue for the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art. San Francisco, 2000.
Molesworth, Helen. Stops and Starts. Noontime Lecture Series at the Temple Hoyne Buell
Center for the Study of American Architecture, Spring 1998.
Perl, Jed. Our Dadaist. New Republic, Vol. 222, Issue 16/17, 2000, 66.
Simon, Joan. Robert Gobert (sic) and the Extra Ordinary. “Robert Gober” exhibition catalogue
for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Madrid, 1991.
--December 3, 2002

© 2021 Carol Hummel