Robert Gober,
Drain
1989
cast pewter, ca. 4 x 3 in.




Gober’s utilization of the drain is an excellent example of the complexity embedded in a common object, and how it can evoke deep and resonating responses and address questions of how we come to inhabit ourselves and form or reject identity. Helen Molesworth identifies four resonances of the drain in Gober’s work. First is the drain as “a metaphor for the body, through which the body is presented as an open system regulated by various flows” (Molesworth, 2). Gober inserts drains -- or eliminates them from -- various objects including sinks, bodies, and walls. In Untitled (1991), Gober inserts multiple drains in the underwear-clad lower torso of a man referring to “the simultaneous pleasure and anxiety offered by bodily orifices, the drains of the body. This work is as humorous as it is disturbing, for while it is a body made too porous, too contingent, it is also a body born of the desire many of us have for identities that are experienced as fluid, infinitely permeable.” (Molesworth, 2). The second resonance Molesworth attributes to the drain relates to its mechanics. Drains play a mundane -- but important -- role in the everyday life of human beings. Bodies and machines are closely allied in the utilization of indoor plumbing; the body maintaining and gaining benefit from the drains while the drain gains its purpose and function from the body. Deleuze and Guattari theorize in their manifesto Anti-Oedipus that desire is structured by continual and changing connections, which they term “hooking-up”. They posit that desire has a mechanistic and additive logic, governed by flows, stops and starts, and continuums. Molesworth believes that Gober’s sculptures, “with their odd conjunctures of bodies and objects” seem to embody the potentially humorous nature of such a model of desire, as these hookups are both implied and literalized in his work.

Desire also seems connected to the third resonance of the drain: Its temporality. As Molesworth says, “The stops and flows of the drain, and of desire, suggest a subject in a state of flux, a subject continually altered, whether dramatically or subtle, by the objects that surround him or her.” This ties directly into Gober’s stated contention that the viewer must interact with and complete his objects. The final resonance of the drain is its location. The drain is a visual marker between public and private. But more importantly, according to Molesworth, it “establishes the very contiguous nature of public and private, the permeability between inside and outside, private and public, between oneself and others.” These four resonances of the drain, Molesworth concludes, are tightly bound with “the fictions of public and private that structure our notions of identity and desire” and Gober’s use of the commonplace drain considers “how identity and desire are formed as much through habit and boredom as they are by traumatic encounters.”

What seems to be of greatest importance here, however, is not that habit and repetitious everyday activities structure our identities, but that these mundane activities actually free us from our identities because they can be completed so completely mindlessly. Gober uses common objects such as the drain to emphasize that the pleasures and problems of desire, humor, the body, and identity exist not only in fantasy but also -- and primarily -- in everyday life. His work emphasizes that we are whom we are largely because of our everyday routines and habits, and he validates everyday existence as being as puzzling and perplexing as fantasy. Even sexuality assumes a casual character when presented in Gober’s work. His erotic objects assume the same enigmatic ordinariness as his non-sexual objects. Although Gober’s work includes nude male torsos, half-female/half-male torsos, and a collection of male legs, it lacks any hint of sexual scandal. As Jed Perl writes, “Gober will present a relatively attractive yet by no means extraordinary body as an erotic icon.” His male/female torso is less about difference than it is about similarity. “He is saying that we are all basically the same, that too much can be made of male-female differences” (Perl, 4).

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