As an artist and gay man working in New York City in the 1980s, Robert Gober witnessed and personally endured firsthand the devastation wrought by the HIV and AIDS crisis, especially during the early years in which the disease was poorly understood and its contamination stigmatized. One of a group of artists in downtown New York making work in response to the crisis, such as Félix González-Torres and Jim Hodges, these artists utilized vocabularies of Minimalism and Surrealism to create objects that defined a distinctly conceptual and emotionally resonant era in art history. In their quiet but staid nobility, Gober’s sink sculptures stand as a modern elegy to this immense loss and despair, and as a stoic and forceful visual metaphor to address notions of sanitation, health, stigmatization, and resilience. Stripped of its capacity to cleanse, the present sink offers no promise of purification; instead, its empty basins become repositories for filth and waste, a poignant and sadistic metaphor for the inability of those affected at the time to rid their bodies of this disease and the societal denunciation that it provoked. Within the context of Gober’s oeuvre, the symbolism of the sink recalls the ablutions of Catholic worship and the significance of water as a means of purification in religious ceremony; the unmistakable irony here of course being that the present sink offers no possibility of redemption or salvation. Raised in a devoutly Catholic household (as a child, Gober served as an altar boy at his Church), Gober has utilized and reinvented the symbolism of Catholicism throughout his artistic career to criticize the hypocrisies and inadequacies of our religious, political, and social institutions. Art historian Pepe Karmel writes that “Gober’s sinks evoke a profound ambiguity. On one hand, they function as an architecture of purification, a setting in which dirty things are made clean again. By the same token, however, they are places where dirt is collected.” (Pepe Karmel, "Who You Are and Where You Come From: Robert Gober and René Magritte," in Magritte and Contemporary Art: The Treachery of Images, 2006, p. 164) Reflecting on his experience at this time, Gober recalls: “It seemed that every other day someone I knew or someone that a friend of mine knew was getting severely sick, really fast, and most of them were gay men. Young men were dying all around me, from causes unknown, and the world seemed to be either in denial or revulsion. The government lied to the people and shrank from its duty. Families abandoned 'loved ones.' Even the church abdicated its responsibility to life. Gay men were left, more often than not, to take care of their own. It was a situation that is very hard to create in words. So when I am asked to look back and to 'explain' my sculptures of sinks, this situation reasserts itself. What do you do when you stand in front of a sink? You clean yourself. I seemed to be obsessed with making objects that embodied that broken promise.” (The artist quoted in Theodora Vischer, Exh. Cat., Basel, Schaulager Basel, Robert Gober: Sculptures and Installations, 1979-2007, 2007, p. 60)
Daunting in its commanding scale and unexpected contortion, and yet striking in its austere beauty and elegant fragility, The Split-up Conflicted Sink imbues the familiar with an unfamiliar weight, conjuring the ineffable quality of dreams or memories. Mounted low on the wall below the height of a normal sink, the present work sanctifies its environment as an eerily sacred yet unsettling space, inviting the viewer into a realm in which the objects of our everyday lives have been tampered with and made strange, imbued with a psychological and symbolic power. It is in the banality and familiarity of its referent that The Split-up Conflicted Sink compels such unease: Gober thwarts our expectations and confounds our presumed visual vocabulary, inciting an uncanny and disquieting juxtaposition between our expectations and our present reality. Elisabeth Sussman describes Gober’s sink sculptures as “a specific, recognizable thing, related deeply to everyday life, yet uncannily possessing something unknown, perhaps unexpected, that would appear somehow in the activity of making. To make things meant bringing them to the precipitous brink between the real and the strange.” (Elisabeth Sussman, “Robert Gober: Installation and Sculpture,” in Exh. Cat., Basel, Schaulager Basel, Robert Gober. Work 1979-2007, 2007, p. 19)
Stunning in the purity of its sleek contours and its theatrical austerity, The Split-up Conflicted Sink evokes both the stark reduction of minimalism and the vernacular of the Duchampian readymade. And yet, while eliciting an immediate association with Duchamp’s legendary readymade Fountain, Gober’s sink sculptures are in fact resolutely handmade, painstakingly constructed by hand unlike Duchamp’s prefabricated urinals. In their construction, Gober’s sinks are more closely aligned with the sculpture of Jasper Johns. While the plaster, wire, wood, and enamel construction of Gober’s sinks mimic the finish of their porcelain counterpart, they maintain a sensationally tactile allure in the hand-worked imperfections of their surface. Indeed, a close examination reveals traces of Gober’s labor-intensive process of production, the warmth of the plaster and wood countering the cool, stark indifference of porcelain, the unexpected human quality reinforcing Gober’s search for meaning in form, objects, and content. Without faucets, drains, and pipes, The Split-up Conflicted Sink itself evokes the anthropomorphic, the washboard a torso perhaps, and the two holes where the faucets would be resembling nipples or eyes. And yet, the present sculpture invokes the presence of the human body primarily through its silent, uncanny absence; a sink is really only a sink through its interaction and engagement with the person using it. As Elisabeth Sussman points out: “They are in fact sensuous, glowing, and tactile, combining the tactility of painting and ceramics, and they are completely unlike the works to which they might be compared: the hard industrially manufactured surfaces of either Duchamp’s urinal or of the abstracted forms sent out for fabrication by, say, Donald Judd… To get what Gober wanted meant making it, piece by piece, from the bottom up.” (Ibid., p. 19).
Broadly recognized as among the most important living American artists, Robert Gober’s widely influential oeuvre is distinguished by its conceptual rigor and a disquieting facility for probing the essential binaries of functionality and dysfunction, presence and absence, art and life. Gober’s sink sculptures possess a potential to both cleanse and pollute, sanctify and desecrate; their elegant forms and sober, clean contours simultaneously suggesting presence and absence. This liminality can be understood as an allusion to the universal human condition and, more intimately, as the artist’s own representation of a personal, deeply felt loss.
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