Written by Åsmund Thorkildsen
It’s hard to believe, such happiness.
In such surroundings the Hoffmanns slept. In the aftermath of grief the Hoffmanns slept. On opposite side of the double bed they slept. They were spent, exhausted; like swimmers who have barely made it back to shore, through a treacherous surf; swimmers who’ve survived a common wreck, and dread the knowledge of what happened, and what almost happened in the other’s eyes. No! I can’t look. Don’t make me look. I don’t know you.
- Joyce Carol Oates, Middle Age: A Romance, 2001
These conflicting descriptions of the Hoffmanns’ relationship, the transition from incredible happiness to total alienation, take place within the walls of a well-kept historical house in the beautiful Hudson valley. The private residence, the house, plays a central role in many American novels written during the period that Robert Gober’s art has influenced us, and in particular during the period of his adolescence. The house is the sounding board for early childhood. It is a physical frame within which the family creates the setting for the children’s upbringing. The house can be a symbol of happiness, a place of horrors, and it can, by its absence, represent displacement and a dysfunctional upbringing. A description of Robert Gober’s sculptures per se will not enrich our understanding of his works. There they stand. We can see them and we can move around them. It is easy to comprehend what they depict and what has happened to them. The art historical connections are also straightforward. However, when attempting to make sense of the sculptures, an analysis of the concept of the house and the family during the time in which Gober and his parent’s generation grew up, can be valuable.
Robert Gober’s intricate sculptures are incomprehensible without understanding the concept of the private dwelling. Evidently, the house is omitted from the sculptures’ manifestation, but not from their notion. His sculptures are not like classical and modern works, which are considered to be completely present in their forms. The spectators can move around such works and actually see most everything. However, Robert Gober’s sculptures are displaced; removed from their original location. As postmodern sculptures, they share the same condition as Robert Smithson’s installations. Smithson’s installations always exude the sense of something missing, i.e. a lack of a context, the place from which they are removed. This impression is at its strongest when viewing such works in group exhibitions. In Smithson’s case, one can draw a geographical map over the places from which he has obtained his material. The routes on the roadmap are marked from the hills of New Jersey all the way to the Manhattan galleries. For Robert Gober another map must be drawn. One that is much vaguer. A map that in its historical emotional and conceptual complexity, is so huge and authentic that it is only possible to grasp through the vaguest of notions. The aim should be to turn this ambiguity into something more tangible, and to find the road signs that can lead us to the house, that is the imperceptible part of the sculptures. The good articles written about Gober, guide us precisely towards this direction, towards this ideal residence for the sculptures, by placing his works within the context of common cultural experiences such as Hitchcock’s films, Walt Whitman’s nineteenth century poetry, Freud and Lacan’s psychoanalytical exploration of lust and longing. Or, within the theories about the way in which allegories gather fragments into a meaning, or by placing them in a postmodern context in relation to social utopias, or by demonstrating the link between his work and popular art, minimalism, Dadaism and surrealism. This article aims to show the role of the house in literature regarding family utopias and the search for identity within the middle-class life in postwar America. The house as a home, but also a place where differences are accentuated and alienation takes shape.1
It is this structural omission – this non-existing part that affects us through its absence – that induces some to see a surrealistic or Dadaistic impulse in Robert Gober’s work. And of course his work does have some elements of the anxiety and fascination with amputated parts so visible in early European avant-garde art, such as the gnarled limbs of Hans Bellmer’s dolls or Louise Bourgeois’ dissected body parts. Nevertheless, within European avant-gardes arts, René Magritte’s paintings are probably closest to the feel in Gober’s work, with the bourgeois living room as the familiar background for bizarre misplacements, such as the little train puffing out of the Belgian fireplace in Time Transfixed from 1938. Something similar takes place when Paul Nash allows the nice living room to be invaded by the harbor, as the cargo ship sails in on the floor in the painting Harbor and Room from 1932-36.
Perhaps the most fundamental challenge in Gober’s art is the invisible part of the sculpture – the rooms and the house. He has actively worked with this through his larger installations where the house is reconstructed. However, these constructions are always unfinished. They are stage sets, provisional and worthless as dwellings. For a curator wanting to present Gober’s works, this is the main difficulty. How to present such individual pieces in a neutral museum setting or in the gallery’s white cube? 2 The big question is: How should the exhibition space look like in order to maximize the effect of the sculptures and their total sensation and full meaning? Gober’s works are often described as partial objects, and as such assume the notion of something whole.
This wholeness is of course Utopia. In 1988, Gober created a much discussed installation for the exhibition Utopia Post Utopia, in Boston. This exhibition is a source for the interpretation applied in this article. Gober had invited other fellow artists (Meg Webster and Richard Prince), and had chosen a landscape painting from the nineteenth century by Albert Bierstadt for the room. This installation was thoroughly analyzed by Fredric Jameson in the book Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991). Jameson discusses the installation in terms of utopia and nostalgia, particularly in terms of a yearning for a New England that is no more. Jameson points out the Americanness in Gober’s work: “Gober’s is as American as the Shakers or Charles Ives, its absent community. Its “invisible public” constituted out of readers of Emerson rather than Adorno.” 3 Analyzing the interaction between “nature” and “culture” in Gober’s’ installation, Jameson explicitly refers to the way in which this is represented in nineteenth century paintings from the Hudson River School of Painting.4
This New England nostalgia is often connected to stories about the big, happy, and optimistic family. A house is almost identical with a well functioning family. In Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Town and the City from 1950, the story of the Martins’ rise and fall as a family is closely linked to the portrayal of the old house and the subsequent shabby lodgings. The small town life is described with poignant memories about New England that can very well be called nostalgic: “It was a house that rang with noises and conversations, music, hammer-slammings, shouts down the stairs. At night almost all of its windows glowed as the innumerable activities of the family were carried on. (…) in the old barn was all the accumulated bric-a-brac that only an American family with many boys can assemble over the years.”5 The happy family life is here described by one of the younger sons. Good, wholesome diet is an integral part of the Martin’s household: “The Martin mother is a superb housekeeper (…) She bakes cakes, roast great cuts of beef and lamb and pork, keeps her icebox bulging with food, sweeps the floors and washes clothes and does everything the mother of a big family does.” 6 This house is the nourishing and safe base for longings and activities. It is the center of the world. An intimate place opening itself to the world: “But the weekend could not properly begin till Saturday morning at eight sharp when, after a hurried breakfast of cereal with bananas and sugar and milk, the whole broad world of daylight and skies and trees and woods and fields and The River were just waiting to be had.” 7 Kerouac’s autobiographic novel ends with the compulsion to leave and the consequent banishment from paradise, followed by a growing depression and panic as a result of the alienation and disintegration. But in the nostalgic parts of the book, there are descriptions of intimate episodes and places, found in many of Gober’s sculptures. Even in these idyllic parts of the story we get a premonition of something being wrong, through the portrayal of one of the sons who feels uncomfortable in that house, and who is often referred to as “the queer one of the family.” 8 We get glimpses of happiness when reading about the dips in the river, ice-skating, and when holy pictures are magically laid out on the pillow in order to attain contact with the mysterious world that shuns the day.9
It is part of a phenomenological approach to things, to mundane objects, that furniture – sinks, bathtubs, and beds – can be created as sculptures. Gober’s sculptures are intimate, whether they are modeled as stand-ins for limbs and body parts, or are painstakingly copied from armchairs, playpens, beds, sinks, urinals, building planks, jail windows, pipes, figure skates, cereal boxes, dog baskets or drains.10 Larry Rivers tells about a very intimate intercourse with his parents’ armchair in his autobiography, What Did I Do? (1992), as he describes how he rhythmically slid his penis in the narrow gap between the cushion and the seat. Many of us who are familiar with the Spartan life in crammed apartments before the standard of living rose on both sides of the Atlantic, remember friends who had beds in a closet or a recess in the wall: The bed as dynamic hybrid furniture. Such an intimate room can also be a chamber of horror. Neal Cassady describes his experience of American childhood, growing up with his mildly sadistic elder brother who was fond of a special sport: “When he shoved it, the bed went inside the wall horizontally, and my clearance was less than a foot; so besides fear of this lack of room to rise up as I lay breathing ever so slowly in the total darkness, there were two strong twin terrors of realization…”11 Cassady, who later became friends with Kerouac, grew up under more dramatic conditions than the Martin family. As a result of his parents divorce, his childhood was to some extent marked by shifting households; nomadic, seasonal dwellings in large, dilapidated centers for the hard-up and the down-and-outs in Denver, Colorado. In a matter-of-fact description of the houses and homes in which some of these broken families and cast-offs lived, the chapters about Shorty are especially poignant. His body had an unusually intimate closeness to the narrow physical frames of life. The lodging was like an artificial limb, a direct extension of the body. At six, Cassady experienced living in what he calls “sleeping cells.” About the alcoholic beggar Shorty he writes: “This roommate of ours slept on a sort of platform made by a plank covering a pipe elbow in the building’s plumbing. (…) He fit in the space snugly enough; both of his legs had been amputated at the thigh many years previously. (…) Once on the sidewalk, he would get into a dolly-like cart and by using blocks of wood in each hand, push himself to his begging post.” 12
Since utopias belong to the past, our relation to this blissful past is both nostalgic and elegiac. In 1969, the poet Gregory Corso wrote a poem in memory of Jack Kerouac. In this poem, he is not just nostalgic. Nostalgia can be described as a false dream about a past that never was. In Elegiac Feelings American (for the dear memory of Jack Kerouac) Corso dreams about the America that was, an America that had the dream of the future in itself: “…yes, ours was an American history, a history with a / future, for sure;”13 Corso is not happy with the history he learnt at school. He believes that the real America has not been realized yet: “So, sweet seeker, just what America sought you anyway? / Know that today there are millions of Americans / seeking America.”14 In their search for the real America, the homeless can be apprehensive, for a house can also be an impediment from which they have to break away. This compulsion to run off is experienced by several of the Martin sons in Kerouac’s Town and City. Corso describes the ambiguity, the dream about the home, and the pain when the dream vanishes: “A man can have everything he desires in his home yet have / nothing outside the door – for a feeling man, a / poet man, such an outside serves only to make / home a place in which to hang oneself (…) Did it look beautiful to you, did it sound so too, in its cold / electric blue, that America that spewed and / stenched your home, your good brain, that / unreal fake America, that caricature of America, / that plugged in a wall America…”15
The artist Robert Gober grew up to international success. The boy Robert grew up in what we in Europe saw as free and affluent America, with the novel notions about good upbringing. Good nutrition – a word that for many has an unmistakably 50s connotation – was part of this project that enabled children to grow up with an abundance of healthy food, and become independent, hardworking and strong adults. In a drawing and a huge handmade enlargement of a cereal box that depicts the picture of a happy and healthy boy, Robert Gober has created a poignant and accurate portrait of this ideal.16This was the era of Dr. Spock and Dr. Skinner. If one only approached upbringing scientifically, believing that all social problems could be solved with engineering and knowledge, the future was going to be bright. However, even in the suburban houses with swimming pools and fireplaces, wholesome diet was not always enough. The swimming pool in Long Island – that we encounter in one of Gober’s works – was not always as transparent and controllable as the Skinner box. Nor was it as invigorating as a dip with the boys in the calm deep pool of the river back home in Massachusetts in the 1920s, as Kerouac describes (and reminisces). The suburban pools are a privatization and relocation of that carefree river dip our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed. Therefore, when I see Gober’s newspaper cutting about the fourteen-year-old “Robert Gober,” born like the artist in 1954, who was found drowned in the family pool, strangely enough I do not envisage the picture of that happy, blond boy on the cereal box from the exhibition in Paula Cooper’s Gallery in Wooster Street. I see the enlarged grainy black and white photograph of a happy boy’s face in the installation at the Whitney-biennial in 1991. Group Material expressed great dissatisfaction at the way in which the American health authorities had handled the AIDS crisis in the group installation AIDS timeline, 1989-90. Beside the photograph of the smiling boy by David Wojnarowicz, there is a text about the boy’s sexual awareness, as he understands for the first time that he is attracted to other boys. The boy’s picture has the same unmistakably 50s look as the aforementioned sound in the word “nutrition.” But all the world’s juices, fruits, and cereals could not prevent the weight loss that became a visible phenomenon in New York around 1990.
Gober also shows the flip side of the idealized coin. In the same exhibition with the enlarged cereal box, there was a hand-forged drain sunk in the gallery floor. And a man’s torso in wax lay in a brick shaft with water running from a drain planted in his chest. In his book on the phenomenology of the house, Gaston Bachelard wrote about the basement and the attic as almost universal symbols engraved in the structure of the house. Gober has seen the blue sky through a prison window high up the wall, and he has shown the basement as a place that connects culture with the underworld. Not only through his work with pipes, sunken pools and drains, but also with the basement stairs that he buried down to the water surface in the thin foundation of Venetian soil, when he represented the US in their pavilion at the biennial in Venice in 2001.
The perfect Gober exhibition must remain a dream, a rich ubiquitous image. The complete phenomenological image in Gober’s case consists of exhibitions, contemplations about individual works, reading texts, writing, conversations, experiencing related works, memories. As such, what I have called Gober House is a house that is impossible to build with bricks, planks and nails. It is an intimate place, an image of a house encompassing the sculptures and reconciling them with their background. The dream is the image of a house that is more real than the houses we build, filled as it is with history and meaning, a house that cannot be torn down or abandoned. This is perhaps why Gober does not do as Louise Bourgeois who builds chambers for some of her sculptures.17Her artistic houses are probably more precisely connected to her autobiographical childhood memories, in much the same way as some of Jasper Johns’ childhood home’s ground plan paintings from 1990. It is possible that Gober also has such memories associated with certain addresses, but his house is a much more substantial place, impossible to build except provisionally. Even the installations cannot embrace the complexity contained in Gober House.
Robert Gober’s sculptures are gnarled, composite or amputated versions of mundane objects. Hal Foster sees parts of Gober’s work as “broken allegories.” 18 Arguably, allegories are forms that indirectly attempt to join broken pieces and amputated parts together into a meaningful story. Gober House is a framework for such narrative. Each of his works – be it a drawing, a wallpaper, a sculpture, an installation – are isolated, homeless objects. But they are not torn out of all contexts. Rather, they are, as this article attempts to show, connected to a virtual but highly authentic house, a house so big and complex that it cannot be represented in one installation or exhibition. This house contains recollections of childhood conversations, memories of closeness to places and erotic zones evoked while sitting on a plane as an adult. In various interviews, Robert Gober has linked his sculptures to special memories, like the figures of amputated legs are manifestations of his mother’s stories from the operation rooms, and the discovery of the erogenous zones in that part of the male leg that appears between the socks and the risen fold of the pants. The washbasins are replicas from his grandparents’ big, old sinks in the basement.
The washbasins – like the urinals – are prototypes of objects that only acquire a meaning and function when joined to a larger system. They are structural objects. Moreover, one of the most famous works of early American Dada is a ready made by Marcel Duchamp, a misplaced urinal. Knowing that meaning is created in the relation between the object and the system, Gober has deliberately used both functional and faulty sinks. In public, men and women’s restrooms are separate, and the gender division and various sexual preferences are often associated with the public restrooms. It is so-called surrealistic when a little train comes puffing out of the chimney. It is something completely different when an adult male leg comes out of the womb of a woman’s torso. This brutal incursion into the room and the world does not merely convey the realistic fact that men are born from women, nor is it a metaphorical expression of the saying “cherchez la femme.” Behind such a sculpture, there is the entire American family drama, so well described in literature. In a footnote in his essay, Foster quotes Marcel Proust’s musings about misplacement and replacement of things: “In this respect as in every other,” Proust writes, “our age is infected with a mania for showing things only in the environment that belongs to them, thereby suppressing the essential thing, the “act of mind” which isolated them from that environment.” 19 Gober’s artistic work is such an “act of mind”; it is an opportunity for the viewers to try and re-establish them in their original environment.
Hal Foster mentions Robert Gober as one of the few contemporary artists who lifts the legacy from the avant-gardes, a legacy that claims to be able to resist means-end rationality. Among writers who do the same, Foster mentions Don DeLillo. The framework around the crisis in Lauren Hartke’s life in the novel, The Body Artist from 2001, is a rented house by the coast. After her husband has shot himself in an apartment in town, Lauren finds a stranger in the house. This figure is linked to the house in a rather special manner. The stranger is described as: “(…) a man who remembers the future.(…) a retarded man sadly gifted in certain specialized areas, such as memory retention and mimicry, a man who’d been concealed in a large house, listening. (…) It is the thing no one understands. But it makes and shapes you.” 20 Later, when Lauren thinks about the stranger after he has moved out, his human chaos becomes intermingled with the house, in a passage in which house and language melt into each other: “…she wanted to take him in, try to know him in the spaces where his chaos lurks, in all the soft-cornered rooms and unraveling verbs, the parts of speech where he is meant to locate his existence, and in the material place where Rey lives in him, alive again, word for word, touch for touch, and she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed. / He violates the limits of the human.” 21
This novel was written nearly two decades after Gober became known in the art scene. Obviously, the point with these allegorical counterpoints between Gober’s work and literary texts is not to set up a cause and effect chain of events. Gober may just as well have inspired DeLillo, as Kerouac might have influenced Gober. However, these links point to a mutual subject, musings about ‘the house.’ Robert Gober has worked with sculptures of hermaphrodites. Lauren Hartke has prepared her new performance for Boston, and in the final chapter, the narrator is observing her: “I’m not sure what she’s doing. I can almost believe she is equipped by male genitals, as in the piece, prosthetic of course, and maybe an Ace bandage in flesh-tone to bleep out her breasts, with a sprinkle of chest hair pasted on. Or she has trained her upper body to deflate and her lower body to sprout.” 22 In other words, the house and language can be a place that is not utopian, nor reconciliatory nor healing. The house can be a disturbing place that creates hybrids, where forms and categories merge into one another. So the reason for the alienating and disturbing ambience in some of Gober’s sculptures can perhaps be found in the type of experiences with the body, house and language described by DeLillo in The Body Artists.
As a young artist, Robert Gober built a few miniature houses. They are not always included in the bigger analyses of his sculptures and installations, but I believe that they are extremely important as indicators. They point towards the house that is impossible to build, but it is the house that really matters. And if the artist shapes the art, there is always something bigger that shapes the artist.
1. The choice of material is enormous. Here, only a few examples will be taken. The significance of different houses are seen in Philip Roth’s later novels, such as for the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman’s reclusive life, for the retired professor Coleman Slik (The Human Stain, 2000) for Seymour Levov (American Pastoral, 1997) and for Ira Ringold (I Married a Communist, 1998). Behind all the houses in literature, there is the primordial house, i.e. the simple cabin Henry David Thoreau built before writing Walden (1854), a cabin that also became a book. Thoreau – like Whitman – is a utopian figure, a lasting model in most parts of the last 50 years of American literature and avant-garde art.
2. In the clean, luxurious suites of Astrup Fearnley Museum, it is important to follow some phenomenological pointers that are inherent in the more formal qualities of the sculptures, as they stretch out in length, stick out of walls, hang besides each other on the walls, marking the direction of the movement, etc. Therefore, it has been important for the museum to represent some of the more minimalist objects in the long hall, the more intimate sculptures in smaller cabinets. The legacy of minimalism in Gober’s work is manifested precisely in this, that the minimalist objects are placed in the room in such way that the limits and the possibilities of the room together with the spectators’ movements express the artwork. The spectators should open up in order to allow the lower and middle parts of their bodies to participate in the sensation, by experiencing the placement of the sculptures on the wall, the forces of nature at work when something is leaning on a wall or is tipped out of balance, or when something is laid on top of something else heavily on the floor.
3. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, 1991, quoted from the sixth edition, page 162
4. Ibid. page 169
5. Jack Kerouac, The Town and the City (1950), quoted the Penguin edition 2000, page 7
6. Ibid. page 8
7. Ibid. page 27. For Gober’s installation in Dia Art Foundation in New York in 1992, the walls were painted as pastoral simulacra of a New England summer day in leafy woods.
8. Ibid. page 191.
9. Gaston Bachelard’s poetic phenomenology substantiates the fact that such intimate places are universal. His book about the phenomenology of the residential house, La Poétique de l’Espace (1958), published in English as The Poetics of Space (1964) provides a thorough analysis of the humanistic and universal existence in this kind of room and housing. He describes huge but vague realities that are captured in what he calls images. A house contains both the idea of living as belonging and the fear of unknown dangers, an ambiguous all-encompassing experience that I have called GOBER HOUSE.
10. It is difficult to look at Gober’s wall sculptures of a pair of white figure skates without thinking of North American childhood. Such skates belong to girls and are used by girls: “A motion must have caught my mother’s eye; she rose and moved to the window, and Father and I followed. There we saw the young girl, the transfigured Jo Ann Sheehy, skating alone under the streetlight. / She was turning on ice skates inside the streetlight’s yellow cone of light – illumined and silent (…) Under her skates the street’s packed snow shone; it illuminated her from below. (…) Here were beauty and mystery outside the house, and peace and safety within.” Annie Dillard, An American Childhood, New York 1987, quoted from the paperback edition from 1988, pages 30-31.
11. Neal Cassady: The First Third, San Francisco 1971, quoted from the 1981 edition, page 111.
12. Ibid. page 50. – The perspective applied to view the Gober House is deliberately in the past. As the type of home the postwar children grew up in, were influenced by the houses and families built and formed in the 1910s and the 1920s. The traumas – the mental maladies – that the children of the ‘40s and 50s were subject to are Victorian. The moral prevalent in a family from the 1950s belongs to the houses visited by Sigmund Freud. So, when Julia Kristeva finds New Maladies of the Soul among the immigrants and displaced communities in Europe, one should remember that this diagnosis does not apply to the pre and post war generation of New Englanders.
13. Gregory Corso, Elegiac Feelings American, 1970, quoted from the fifth edition, page 6
14. Ibid. page 8.
15. Ibid. pages 9 –10
16. There is something typically 1980s about Gober’s copies and distortions of familiar things. There was much talk about appropriation at that time when the artists copied and used already existing forms, prevalent as a common point of reference in the culture. An art historical understanding of Gober’s work will place him on the side, but related to neo-geo and the conceptual, staged photograph that was made by his contemporaries. His use of unexpected materials simulating something else, like for example painted bronze simulating insulation material is an aesthetic surprise, which turns the traditional hierarchies for high and low values upside down. In such works, there is also a direct reference to Jasper Johns’ famous hand-painted bronze sculpture of two beer boxes (Painted Bronze from 1960). It is also through such hand-painted pop that we find prototypes for Gober’s hand-painted logos on stickers and packings.
17. Many other artists use old-fashioned and shabby rooms that can shed light on Gober’s sculpture. The mise-en scene for Francesca Woodman’s self-portraits consists of old run down American rooms decorated with threadbare out-of-date furniture. Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, exhibited as a reconstruction in Sprengel Museum in Hanover in Germany, is a claustrophobic experience that reveals a person who is unable to acknowledge the clear-cut limits between his own body, his movements and the walls. Like a hermit, Gregor Schneider built himself in an increasingly narrower existence in a basement. In Eija-Liisa Athila’s video installation, The House (2002), it is the cottage that frames a nervous breakdown. In her film QM, I Think I Call Her QM (1997), Ann-Sofi Sidéns uses a shabby apartment, built in by books, as the breeding-ground for the full-fledged madness of a psychiatrist. Joseph Cornell has shown us the house as a miniature box since the1930s. Dreams and the urge to travel are encapsulated in squalid boxes. The same homemade feel is seen in the early sculptures of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly from the 1950s. Robert Gober’s sculptures are strictly speaking unnecessarily handmade. But it gives them a homemade look and the impression of a slow and unprofitable production form that contrasted sharply with the sleek, perfect furniture sculptures that dominated the art scene at the time when his sculptures began attracting attention in the early 1980s. This homemade quality gave Gober’s works an old-fashioned look, placing them right into the continuation of the 50s’ and 60s neo-Dadaism and the early avant-gardes of the 1910s. It is this old fashioned look that connects them to a special type of house and home. The house that such sculptures seek is seen in photographs by Gilbert & George, empty, dusty wooden paneled interiors. In such houses, dadoes, wide skirting, and frames are inevitable. Much like the type of house in Manhattan that was torn down early in the ‘50s when Louise Nevelson anxiously awaited the clearance that threatened her house, and therefore in the middle of the night equipped with a wheelbarrow she salvaged balustrades and carved skirting for her wall sculptures: “Her searches with a wheelbarrow at three or four o’clock in the morning to beat the garbage trucks became more frequent and frenetic; her choice of objects, more audacious.” Quoted from Laurie Lisle’s, Louise Nevelson, A Passionate Life, New York (1990), p. 183. Independently, these types of associations provide Gober’s sculptures with a local foundation within the physical surroundings in an older avant-garde circle in Lower Manhattan, but the recurrence of such houses in cities, suburbs nooks and crannies, films and books increases the significance. Parallel to this mood of impending abandon, Gober also keeps an eye on popular culture. In contemporary American art, there is often a tendency to see things though a kind of Hollywood and Halloween filter, that is not so usual in Europe. Certainly, chopped off limbs are linked to medieval notions of hell, and we are familiar with them through the more brutal sides of criminality. But such horror pictures are amply present in fairy tales and are also good business for the film industry. Children and youngsters can buy severed arms and legs to scare people on dark autumn nights. In the basement stair with the open trapdoor built for the installation in Venice, we were once again reminded of an old-fashioned building style, but the yellow plastic door to the virtual basement was reminiscent of the Fisher Price toy stores’ plastic. The basement as a secret and terrifying place for horrible deeds is a recurring theme in American horror films. In the feature film, Office Killer (1997), made by Gober’s colleague and peer Cindy Sherman, such a basement scene is the stylishly dramatic and aesthetic climax of the film. These kinds of phenomena are important when trying to understand Gober’s sculptures. Because as a postmodern artist he is extremely aware of the fact that he is creating sculptures and installations that represent something and therefore require the storytelling devices and existing forms that spectators can refer to.
18. Foster discusses Gober’s’ art in the essay “This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse,” published in the book by Hal Foster, Crime and Design (and other diatribes), London and New York 2002.
19. Ibid. page 153.
20. Don DeLillo, The Body Artist, New York 2001, quoted from the Picador edition 2001, page 100.
21. Ibid. page 100.
22. Ibid. page 109.