As one of the earliest and most enduring images of Robert Gober’s oeuvre, Drains is a work of great importance in the artist’s unique vocabulary of images. The image of a drain first appeared in Slides of a Changing Painting (1982-83), which marked the beginning of Gober’s career with his first exhibition at Paula Cooper Gallery, and consisted of 80 slides of over-painted images that were projected after one another in the sequence of production. This intriguing motif, which the artist executed in sculptural form in 1990, also acts as a counter-part to the iconic sinks that Gober made in New York between 1984 and 1986 – literally filling in the negative space of the sink. Whilst Drains has a distinctly quotidian appearance, and closely resembles a ready-made object, it is in fact a painstakingly hand-produced work with highly suggestive associations. Characteristically exploring the domestic immediacy of his childhood memories through a highly-charged metaphorical language, Drains symbolises a point of transition, dividing the visible from the invisible and separating the dirt from the human body . As the artist explained, “I thought of the drains as metaphors functioning in the same way as traditional paintings, as a window into another world. However, the world that you enter into through the metaphor of the drain would be something darker and unknown, like an ecological unconscious” (Robert Gober quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Robert Gober, 1995-96, p. 45). Charged with associations of cleansing and elimination, this symbol also invokes the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s, and Gober’s sculptures of that decade indeed embody the wishful promise of being able to clean the body of this infection.
Whilst Gober’s imaginative sculptural practice is indeed highly relevant at its time, it was also deeply embedded in his childhood memories and the associative imaginations that made domestic symbols into profoundly powerful metaphors. Cat Litter indeed embodies one of those memories: placed on the floor, the work invokes a child’s perspective from where the sinks become dominant and monolithic objects, the drains fascinating gates into unknown worlds, and Cat Litters relatable objects in size and placement. Continuing the historically pertinent reference to cleansing, the Cat Litter absorb smell and fluids but simultaneously acts as the allegorical counterparts to the Drains. Whereas the latter sucks the detritus away from our physical world, the Cat Litter can only cover up matter, always leaving a physical trace of its presence. Set against the artist’s Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper as in the original installation at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1989, with a black man hanging from a tree, the work also evokes the problematic history of the idealised white, patriarchal family that has left inerasable historical traces. This amalgamation of everyday objects, childhood memories and politicised allegories is highly characteristic for Gober, but the seemingly ready-made objects also fit in with the language of appropriation of the 1980s and a Freudian interest in the unexplored potential of vernacular language. Robert Gober’s unique ability to translate such a universally appealing language of memories into a sculptural practice that comments on political as well as formal and theoretical issues in art, make his work not only extremely symbolically potent, but also one of the most significant explorations of sculpture in contemporary art.
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