Robert Gober’s sculptures call everyday objects into question. And what he discovers in calling the common into question, is the disquieting, the disarming, the unnerving and the disconcerting. Taking objects—a bed, a crib, a door, the accoutrements of a pet—which, while anonymous are also universal, he plays with the tension between the neutered forms and the strong emotional and physical connotations we attach to them. In the alchemy of transforming these objects, Gober transforms a viewers emotional and physical reality; the common made uncommon.
What would you say if someone called your work perverse?
Robert Gober: I would like that, and I would say that they were right.
The humor, to me, is very important. A lot of times in the studio, I push the pieces until they make me laugh. It’s a way to let people enter into the piece, where you can give them more complicated and fraught material. It’s a disarming device, but it’s also a pleasure that comes with the piece.
In looking through your review file, a number of the discussions of your work seemed to center around whether it was cynical or not. Do you think it’s cynical?
No. Do you?
I don’t think art is inherently cynical. I think it’s inherently hopeful.
Could you imagine that the psychological, for you, is spiritual?
Yes . . . Yes.
And do you see a difference between the spiritual and the psychological?
(pause) Sure. But there are points where they intersect. And that might be the point of an artwork—sometimes. (pause)
What are you thinking?
I think it was Tim Rollins who said that to him, paintings were like prayers. Beautiful.
Yes. Do you consider all of your pieces childhood-oriented?
No. For instance, I don’t think the piece of plywood necessarily has anything to do with childhood. Nor does a sink, necessarily. Although I think that until recently, a child’s perspective informed a great deal of my work.
Yes, definitely. Your studio is across from a graveyard. Would you consider yourself obsessed by death?
You make it sound pejorative.
What brought that to mind was that the sinks sometimes look like tombstones, they have a tombstone curve to them. And in fact, Two Partially Buried Sinks is basically a grave. “To sink” is a downward motion. The doorway pieces are essentially passages from one room to another, which could read as from life to death.
For the most part, the objects that I choose are almost all emblems of transition; they’re objects that you complete with your body, and they’re objects that, in one way or another, transform you. Like the sink, from dirty to clean; the beds, from conscious to unconscious; rational thought to dreaming; the doors transform you in the sense that you were speaking of, moving from one space through another. But about being obsessed with death, it sounds a bit . . . depressed.
(laughter) Yes, it does.
Of course, it’s hard living in New York right now not to be. It’s always on your plate.
Yes, as I choke on a sip of water. One idea that occurred to me was that nostalgia might be equivalent to terror for you.
Oh, how interesting. How interesting. Yeah.
You think so?
I think it’s a very interesting comment.
The objects that you choose are in your past, from your history. Then you twist them in a way where everyday objects have a nightmare quality to them. Or as seen in a dream. Is that true of your reality? If you look at a chair, does it have this kind of horror for you?
(laughter) Only when I’m inspired.
Do you get images from your dreams?
I wish it were that simple. Once in a while; yes and no. With the sink, only after I was making it as a series did I realize that I had had, years before, a recurring dream about finding a room within my home that I didn’t know existed. That room was full of sinks, but it was very different—there was sunlight pouring in the room, and there was water running in all the sinks. They were functional. So it was an image that I had a recurring dream about, but it’s not like I woke up and I said, “Gee, that would make an interesting sculpture.” It’s after-the-fact. You look back and you see all these different influences: dreams, people you’ve known, things you’ve read.
That’s curious, because your work seems to be very much about making the unconscious conscious; pulling those objects from somewhere really deep inside. Taking the nonreal and making it real and then making it unreal again.
Yes. That’s true.
What’s an area of your work that you think has really been misunderstood or not read properly?
The sense of humor doesn’t get mentioned, which, to me, is enormously important.
I asked the sculptor Jackie Winsor what she would ask you.
Oh, yeah? And what’d she say?
She said to ask you what your experience of being an artist was. How you experienced being an artist.
(pause) It’s not something I’d wish on anyone. It’s not an easy occupation, if it’s an occupation at all. But in what way being an artist? There’s so many different ways to look at that. I look out my window and I see guys washing windshields. There are so many miserable professions in the world, so, as a job, how can you complain? But I don’t think it’s easy—the exposing of yourself continually to the public. And for what end, you know?
For me, the difficult part is having to dredge the stuff up from inside of you. It can be so excruciatingly painful.
Yes. And without guidelines. How do you do it, and in what form do you put this information? How do you make it interesting to other people? How do you translate it in formal terms?
It’s that Greek idea of hubris, where once you’ve crossed a line, once you’ve brought something up and you have knowledge of it, you can’t go back. And, you know; sometimes you would really rather not know or have to confront that.
Yes. (pause) Making sculptures has taken me places emotionally and intellectually I never would have gone.
Psychology deals with things as problems; metaphysics deals with things as a journey. Do you have a problem or are you on a journey?
Can you define what the problem is?
I could avoid the question and say the problem is how to make viable sculptures.
But if you weren’t going to avoid the question, what would you say?
I couldn’t answer it publicly. There would be no point.
Do you have a sense of what the journey is?
It’s the same answer as the first one: how to make a viable sculpture. No, that’s not true—it’s more than that, it sounds so corny—it’s the journey of life. It sounds so silly; it sounds so stupid, doesn’t it?