Whose Name Was Writ in Water

Partial view of an untitled installation by Robert Gober, 2003-05, plaster, urethane, fiberglass and mixed mediums, dimensions variable. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.Photo Thomas Griesel. 


The city of Rome’s first aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, was built in 312 BCE; by the 4th century CE, the capital depended on a network of 11 of them. The purest waters hydrated the villas and gardens of Rome’s wealthy as well as the first- and second-story apartments of its middle class, while the city’s poor, dwelling without plumbing on floors three and higher, could count on the sometimes less wholesome, though potable, waters flowing into Rome’s public gardens, public baths and public fountains, from which anyone could draw gratis. In the capital, as throughout the empire, aqueducts did their work mostly unseen, buried underground, though occasionally they did show themselves, stretching elegant and bridgelike across a gulf where need be, as in the case of the Pont du Gard in the south of what used to be Gaul.

Rome’s central sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, predates its first aqueduct by more than 300 years. It had begun in Etruscan days as a big open cesspool, graciously receiving, in addition to the usual refuse, corpses the poor could not afford to bury and any other bodies that required disposal without ceremony. Roman authorities would eventually cover their city’s central waste artery with a roof and provide street drainage to handle what the lower classes threw out their windows. Century after increasingly sophisticated century, an ever-evolving hydraulics network channeled Rome’s effluent, patrician and plebian, into the Cloaca Maxima, and from there into the famously fetid—and foul to this day—Tiber river.

The Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, attempting to bring his countrymen around to Rome’s worthiness, famously proclaimed that the Empire’s greatness “manifests itself above all in three things: the aqueducts, the paved roads and the construction of the drains.” Imagine a properly Roman art then—a kind of Republican Realism celebrating public infrastructure, waste disposal, and the labor that made and maintained these systems—instead of all those copies of Greek statuary.

An aqueduct moves water, a paved road moves goods and people and animals, a drain handles precipitation and waste. Meaning, too, flows and can likewise be conducted. I spent the summer of 2001 cocktail-waitressing in Greece, where you’d see the word “metaphor” on trucks: in Modern Greek, µεταφορά (metafora) just means transportation. Roman art and jurisprudence might have been imitations of Hellenic genius, but for Rome’s empire as for ours the real power was in the structure of the network itself: what flows or doesn’t flow through the network is fungible and secondary.

The artist Robert Gober (b. 1954) has invested heavily in the shallow and deep metaphysics of plumbing. He knows that mass media, like public waterworks, are the channels and ciphers of human connection, however filthy and corrupted. Just as feminism declared the personal political, Gober arrives at his peculiarly language-inhibiting brand of gut-level candor by making the political personal. He’s no Walt Whitman telling us to assume (take on) what he shall assume; rather, he finds ways to make solid what he—what we—are already carrying, what we’ve all been carrying all along, and what is literally piped into our dwellings, our brains and our hearts every day.

“The Heart Is Not a Metaphor,” Gober’s recent retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, flowed through a visual vocabulary in which drains and sewage pipes, plumbing and the absence of plumbing, figured prominently. Lovingly curated by MoMA’s Ann Temkin in close collaboration with Gober, the retrospective had the feel of a single installation. Structured circularly, the show presented early on Gober’s artistic coming-of-age: an iconic series of maniacally handcrafted, faux-readymade sinks (1983-87), then passed by way of his increasingly complex assemblages and full-room installations through the 1990s, and culminated with his most sincere and ambitious work to date: an untitled chapel-like installation memorializing 9/11. The exhibition then ended humbly where Gober first started out: two of his dollhouses from the late 1970s, which, according to the catalogue, he’d built thinking he might be able to sell to support his artistic career.

Over time, Gober has made increasingly broad gestures as a visual storyteller. The bravura which hid in the materiality and construction of his earlier objects has gradually grown into more extroverted, bigger, more unequivocating forms. And yet he is everywhere at pains to let us know that no matter how “big” he or his work might get, his heart retains a Christian love of the humble and the meek. Even the exhibition catalogue, considerably smaller than the usual coffee-table book, turns its back on the tasteful pomposity such a milestone has earned the artist. In the slightly blurry photograph on the cover, we see Gober at work among flowers and weeds and evergreens, with a waxwork leg in each hand, dog trotting at his heels, his green shorts and breeze- or haste-ruffled plaid shirt revealing enough husky musculature to make him look eminently cruise-worthy. Without having gone so far as to moon us or, to borrow the Christian Right’s parlance, “rub it in our faces,” Gober has kept his gay butt—and also his artist’s hand—in the picture, while also letting us know that, though this is a retrospective, he’s not looking back.

The mimetic faculty was at the root of the ancients’ sense of what art was, and the literalism of some of Robert Gober’s handmade objects gets at the fundamental perversity of mimesis in an industrial age. Gober’s body of work includes, among other things, framed archival prints, made entirely by hand by the artist and his assistants, of a thumb-size newspaper clipping; a scrawled flier; an almost translucent cash register receipt. There are stacks of newspapers in museum-quality facsimile tied up with string as if by a hoarder. There are painted lead-crystal reproductions of paint cans and liquor bottles, the latter identical to the industrially perfect real thing while the former purposefully shows imperfections wrought by the artist’s hand. Gober’s sculptures of bags of cat litter, which look exactly like bags of cat litter, seem so insanely, perversely idiotic to me that they verge on sublime. And his dumbest object of all, a meticulously handmade sheet of plywood from 1987, is so stupefying in its perfection that to say anything about it would only make fools of us all.  

One step beyond these reproductions come familiar things that Gober has distorted, truncated or enlarged: counterfeit sewage pipes in the shape of a cross upon which a playpen is impaled, a man-size stick of butter made of wax laid in a crib and surrounded by apples you can’t eat, a candle-size wax candle sprouting human hair, a man-size sculpture of a cigar that is actually a giant cigar made of preserved tobacco leaves, a wall-mounted plaster ear the size of your head, full-scale waxworks of male legs or lower bodies jutting out supine from walls like male invocations of the Wicked Witch of the West.  

The surfeit of attention lavished on the creation of often banal objects left me feeling like a witness to Sisyphus, suggesting that hell isn’t the agony of unending struggle or five-alarm torment, but rather insipid triviality without end. Gober’s objects, like conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing,” has at least a little in common with William Blake’s nightmares, in which the human imagination is enslaved to machines. In Gober’s work, the very flower of human ingenuity and tender loving care is poured into magnificent forgeries of cat litter bags and other shit-related—but always just shy of overtly scatological—objects.

Many of the items in Gober’s world seem to conjure or to reconstitute a father, as if from a child’s view, or a dog’s.  A small creature glimpses his father, or his master, as if by the edges: the newspaper he reads, the pipe he smokes, his trouser leg pulled up just so to reveal a decorous strip of hairy flesh. All these, in Gober’s world, are the gay fetish doubles of heterosexual pinup-culture’s obsession with the edges of mommy: women’s stockings, high-heel-shod lower legs. Then there’s the stick of butter Gober replicated, which I read as a cipher for father’s (not necessarily homosexual) virile anality, i.e., the vicious, decrepit Marlon Brando hissing “get the butter” to Maria Schneider in Last Tango In Paris (1972).

Water may be the only true readymade in Gober’s oeuvre, aside from ourselves, or the conditioned responses within us. Though water didn’t actually make an appearance in his work until the 1990s, the absence of liquid was conspicuous in Gober’s early series of sink sculptures. When I encountered these iconic works, hanging waist-high on the walls of MoMA’s white gallery, I hated them: sly and dry, I texted one friend. Vaginal dryness, I wrote to another. These dumb-looking cartoony sinks, bland and clean, blah archaic torsos of Apollo, looked like cleaner (and hardware-free) versions of the sinks in all the public schools I went to and in every loft I ever lived and puked in, not to mention made art in.

They were also obvious nods to Duchamp, with Gober swapping a sink for a urinal. This struck me as a teacher’s pet move, and on top of that, the wall text implied that I had better take these sinks as evocative of “the impossibility of cleansing oneself” during the AIDS crisis. The interpretation made sense, but felt both facile and heavy-handed. The sinks reminded me of the lines of student poetry on which I often had to comment, “Although I understand what you mean here the line fails to move me” because of one lack of magic or another. How could Gober’s contemporaries even look at them? How could I?

The fact that they were supposed to express some feeling about the AIDS crisis only made me want to hate them more. Not only were they clumsy metaphors, they were also cloaking their intended metaphorical significance in the drag of passionless readymades. No, wait—they weren’t even readymades! They just looked like readymades! And didn’t the title of this entire retrospective invoke the heart? Where was the heart here?

Gober’s most distinguished critics have praised his work for precisely the reasons I found it irritating. Art historian David Joselit, writing in these pages, situates even Gober’s later assemblages—including his statue of the Virgin Mary impaled with a sewer pipe from an untitled 1997 installation (not included in the MoMA show)—as “sly” invocations of Duchamp. According to Joselit, the French artist, who exemplifies “avant-garde indifference to iconography counterbalances [Gober’s] own intense sentimentality.” Joselit continues:

Whereas Duchamp depended upon the power of institutions to confer the status of art on ordinary things, Gober takes advantage of the now canonical status of the readymade to accomplish his own ends. 1

In this account, Gober makes explicit reference to Duchamp in order to smuggle real feeling into the heady discursive airs of galleries and criticism. It’s as though the Duchampian legacy has become frozen, not so much in Gober’s hands, but in those of critics. 

But the more I’ve thought about Gober’s sinks—especially in light of what their madeness has caused me to feel—the more their indifference, if not antagonism to the critical use—value of Duchamp, emerges. You can’t retroactively manufacture a visceral feeling. And those sinks do have visceral power: they’re kind of funny, and it’s through examining what’s funny about them that one discovers their power as artworks—both visceral and conceptual.                 

Every real-life version of these sinks I’d ever seen had been yellowed with age and streaked with years of paint in all kinds of colors, plus other more mysterious encrustations: petrified cakes of soap, Kennedy-era rubber cement barnacles, etc. If Gober’s sinks were meant to evoke the impossibility of ever getting clean, why not show honestly dirty readymades? What was gained by whitewashing them? These sinks felt a bit like Ikea renderings of the “New York Loft” originals.

But maybe the extreme cleanliness of Gober’s false sinks evokes a hopeless longing, in the AIDS generation, for a kind of cleanliness or purity bordering on the otherworldly—even the Catholic. In the end, this feeling might not be dissimilar to the “made-up” hopelessness of magazine and sitcom domestic femininity. (Those faucet holes also suggested the telltale lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, which some men tried to cover with women’s foundation.) The more I looked at the sinks, the more tenderness I saw in the act of reconstituting by hand what now seemed settled in my mind’s eye as a mechanically reproduced cognate of the male chest, hard and smooth save for blank orifices where nipples should be. Might Gober’s craft have begun as a knowingly quixotic, rigorously pathetic-and slow-moving-attempt to short-circuit wholesale American masculinity by infusing it, via meticulous and patient handiwork, with aura? The sinks’ janitorial butch would work beautifully if they were usedas fonts for holy water in a gay church, where queers might go not to cleanse themselves of plague or shame, but to sing a rather tough, but generous, American hymn.

Gober’s sincerity can be arresting, a quality that I found especially apparent in his treatment of wallpaper. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a classic feminist short story whose heroine, at great risk, escapes the suffocation of Victorian domesticity. Gober’s wallpapers evoke airless, no-exit interiors even as they overturn their laws of good taste. The wallpaper imitates the style of mass-production, though its iconography—at least until recently—would seem to forbid wide distribution. In a burlesque of industrial design, we find a pattern of alternating male and female genitals (Male and Female Genital Wallpaper, 1989), and another that alternates a lynched black man and a sleeping white man (Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989).

The shock-value of this work might need to be historicized for my generation, since Internet culture’s marriage with industrial design means we’re accustomed to the pleasure of fusing the cute with the (genuinely, supposedly or formerly) transgressive. Our bedspreads and socks and curtains have cannabis leaves, skulls and expletives on them. You can buy pasta shaped like cocks and balls; a best-selling children’s book has the word “fuck” in the title. And, of course, a torrent of obscenity is always available with the click of a mouse.

Gober’s lynching-dreaming wallpaper was presented at MoMA as part of an installation that includes a handcrafted bag of donuts that looks like a real bag of dry, unappetizing donuts, imitation bags of kitty litter and a wedding dress sculpture tailored to fit the artist. The setup hardly proved controversial when Gober showed it at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York in 1989, at least according to Hilton Als, who described the event in a deeply felt essay for the MoMA catalogue. But when exhibited in 1990 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., where the staff and patrons were white, and the security was black, the security guards demanded an explanation, both from Gober and from the museum’s curatorial staff.

The anthropologist Michael Taussig, and Goethe before him, has commented on polite society’s preference for muted interiors—pale walls against which a bright painting or throw pillow might shine, but never the other way around. Gober’s wallpapers simply reverse the old laws of good taste. One way they do this is by making something absurdly grand out of kitsch, such as in the pattern featuring the outlines of various American states in a kitchen-ish pastel palette. Good taste is also violated through the ad nauseam repetition of “obscene” genitals, which effectively diminishes their effect on the Christian Right’s culture warriors, who, especially in the ’90s, were so vociferously terrified by sex.

On the other hand, Gober’s repeating patterns can magnify horror, as in the lynching-dreaming wallpaper, which unmistakably links the American slavery nightmare to its obverse, the American dream. And yet this clarity, repeating and repeating, admits rich ambiguities. Is the image of the lynched black man not also the wet dream of the white man? And to what extent are all Americans, whatever their color, forced to sleep the sleep and aspire to the dreams and dream the nightmares of the worst oppressors, of the worst of what our culture has been and remains? Is the white man figure even asleep at all? Or is he insomniac for reasons too vast and ineluctable for one artwork to contain?

Water came gushing from sinks that were part of Gober’s 1992-93 installation at New York’s Dia Art Foundation, introducing an element of badness—of deliberate impurity, excess—to his careful system of handmade readymades. That piece, titled site-specific installation, was re-created at MoMA. It occupied an entire room, temporarily constructed in the center of the museum’s atrium. Sinks lined the walls, which were decorated with printed wallpaper depicting a Long Island forest. Apertures cut into the walls were covered with prison bars, behind which one could perceive the glow of false daylight. In this context, where everything seemed artificial, the water stood apart. So splendid to me was the sight and sound, at last, of something “real,” and such a visceral relief after so many virtuosic subterfuges, that it was weeks after the exhibition closed before I could bring myself even to consider the extreme artificiality and excess of these sinks’ hidden plumbing.

To borrow a crucial question from Als’s catalogue essay: “Can artists make water?”2 For reasons idiomatic and scientific, the answer to Als’s question is, of course, “yes,” for “to make water” is an antiquated euphemism for the verb “to pee,” and it is also technically possible to fabricate water by combining two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But the water in Gober’s world, at least as far as I know, was not laboratory—synthesized or elaborately made. It was just water. A piece of water, as Gertrude Stein might put it, is also “water is water is water”: it can accommodate any metaphor while also just being itself.

Water as feeling, water as life, water as tears, or real water as ultimate emotional realness (“realness” being a vogueing term for mimetic perfection): unabashed, but complicated, sincerity gushed from the retrospective’s chapel-like climax, Gober’s untitled installation (2003-05) memorializing September 11, 2001. On the back wall of the room hung a crucifix, water spewing from the nipples of a decapitated Christ. The sound of rushing water was loud, sensual, and real: its simplicity transcended the gothic fount from which it spewed, as if to say: there’s the mawkishness of the emotion any single artist can express, and then there’s the authority—the gigantic realness—of emotion itself. Bronze slabs, crafted to resemble chunks of Styrofoam, are arranged in a pew-like formation. On top of each is an offering of sorts: diapers, fruit, black strips that resemble rubber. Behind the crucifix were two “bathrooms”: through each ajar door one could glimpse a pair of waxen legs in a bathtub, faucet on full tilt but never overflowing, and scattered pages of the New York Times on the floor. Once again the hypnotizing, even ejaculatory delight of real rushing water stalled my capacity to consider the hidden feats of engineering and artifice behind it, which so expertly, and seemingly effortlessly, kept MoMA’s second floor from flooding.

The installation also includes archival prints of pages of the September 12, 2001, edition of the New York Times lining two walls, and on each page is a drawing of two headless torsos in a loving embrace, the image rendered lightly enough for the text to be legible. News offers Gober a direct way of grounding personal, poetic explorations in the flow of public history. Where the Times had earlier been stacked against the walls of Gober’s installations—for example, in piles near the running sinks of site-specific installation, its sheets are here the miserable iconostasis of a city that barely got to take a breath between the ravages of AIDS and the unending war on terror, both catastrophes on which the Times failed to report accurately and vigorously until far too late in the game. 

Art has waged a long war against the news. Baudelaire called the newspaper “a tissue of horrors;” Virginia Woolf began crafting an ethics around photojournalistic accounts of human suffering; and Joyce cast the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, as a journalist precisely to upend, in his single-day epic, the obscenity to which daily papers inure us. Gober treats newspaper with almost tender disgust: for him, the newspaper, no matter how overdetermined a matrix of entrenched power and social conditioning it may be, also represents the flow of what connects us. In this respect it’s like his sewer pipe, but also like the Roman aqueducts. Although it kind of kills our capacity to think and feel, the news is still the central artery connecting our bodies to the city, the rest of the nation, the world.

But newspaper’s no match for the water rushing out of Jesus’s breasts or the seemingly overflowing bathtubs. You find yourself visualizing that paper as so much pulp. Since at least the 12th century, Jesus has been written about in feminized, even mammary terms, his blood and tears cognate to a mother’s milk. That Gober has also excised Jesus’s head reminds me that the only face in this exhibition belonged to Gober’s dead dog. A decapitated idol protects us from abstracting the heart’s work. It’s worth noting that Gober’s most unabashedly lyrical work to date, this chapel, is also the one most explicitly engaged in public discourse. And though the concealed waterworks that make it possible for Jesus to “sob” torrentially without flooding the museum are no doubt a subterfuge tantamount to “making water,” their virtuosity magically restores a possibility of sincerity to what we feel about 9/11, making a space for us to grieve also over the cynical obscenity, lubricated by gallons of crocodile tears, of the unending war and destruction it has been used to justify. If we’re ever to get clean of this nightmare, Gober seems to suggest, we’re going to need an endless supply of the strongest solvent there is: public sorrow.


ARIANA REINES is a poet based in New York.