Robert Gober creates sacred tableaux to explore the psychological horrors of religious tyranny
Robert Gober holds his first New York show since 1979 at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea. He has recently exhibited a good deal internationally and represented the United States in the 2001 Venice Biennial.
His new show demonstrates his continued involvement with personal and cultural identities in the creation of objects that suffer from psycho-spiritual and psychosexual identity crises.
Gober has transformed the Matthew Marks Gallery into a chapel. Laid out like a sanctuary with an aisle down the middle, the gallery’s sacred design is completed by a crucifix that confronts us with a beheaded body that spurts water from its breasts into a hole in the floor. The crucifix is flanked by six stone grave markers, tortured wax relics displayed in the corners and embracing pastel figures, superimposed on front pages of The New York Times that hang on the walls like stained glass windows. The sound of water and the soft light streaming from the gallery’s skylight make this installation a complete sensory experience, at once beautiful and creepy.
Before we enter the chapel itself, we come across a white-washed bleeding plank leaning against the wall and a trash can, or a meticulous reproduction of one anyway, a folded black-collared, clerical shirt lying on top of a board with an inverted newspaper clipping of a woman photographed during last year’s Republican convention, a Purple Heart glued to her chin. This collection of images and objects suggests tales of corruption, lies, molestation and the religious right’s cultural blackmail.
On six rafts (that resemble grave markers) that washed up on the beach near Gober’s Long Island studio, the artist has placed solitary still-life settings. A bowl of wax fruit from his childhood dining room table, a wooden plank and a wax crate holding packages of disposable diapers with a baby giving us a butt shot on its plastic label stir ideas of sexuality, exploitation, discipline, domestic and public consumption, lost and found offerings. They flank the center aisle that leads to the crucifix.
Gober’s work is full of contradictions, with objects merging into new forms. Two headless, wax, androgynous torsos, each half woman, half man, the legs turning into tree stumps and a hairy leg forcing it way out of the vagina foot first, occupy corners on either side of the gallery. Gober provokes ideas about interior innocence and predestined exterior sin, our birth as adults and the dual nature of our identities. The torsos take on a sinister quality and retell the myth of Daphne turning into a tree so that her innocence can be preserved beyond the forceful grasp of Apollo’s rape. The sock and the shoe on each torso are among the few real ready-mades used in this show and provide a reality check amidst the artist nightmare.
There are doors on either side of the crucifix. They are cracked open, beckoning us to peek inside. Despite the feeling of witnessing something forbidden, we are lured in to participating in this voyeuristic act. We see the hairy, waxed legs of bathers relaxing in a bathtub of continuously running water relentlessly trying to wash away the dirt and the sins of the day, as a copy of the Starr Report lies discarded on the floor beside the tub. The tub’s drain is open and we realize that this dirty water is the same holy water that is spewing from the crucifix like piss in the front room.
The series of images begins to feel like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals that the great wizard is all but a fraud.
Taken together, the exhibition presents a sexually charged tableau wrapped in a creepy shroud of religion, hinting at forbidden secrets and conjuring feelings of contempt. The installation creates a new kind of dysfunction, both culturally and politically timely, and implicates all us of us in reflections personal and autobiographical, forcing us to cross the line and step into our own psychodrama.