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Robert Gober’s Willful Revision

The sculptor’s rarely seen photographic series reveals the power of memory.

By Alex Jen

Robert Gober, Untitled, from the series 1978–2000, 1978–2000
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

In 1978, the artist Robert Gober made photographs on a drive from Manhattan to Jones Beach on Long Island, printed them, and forgot about them. Twenty-two years later, in 2000, while making a group of photographs of washed-up litter near his studio in Peconic, Long Island, he recalled the images, but could only find the contact sheets. Gober rephotographed the contact sheets, leaving some as they were and digitally insetting the new photographs in others, snapping these memories together with a harsh, redacted precision. The result, 1978–2000 (1978–2000), originally compiled as an artist’s book for Gober’s presentation at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001, and currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami (ICA), frames moments of loss connected by place but obscured by time.

Robert Gober, Untitled, from the series 1978–2000, 1978–2000
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

Gober does not privilege a numbering or sequence for 1978–2000. In one frame, the inset image of a glistening, greasy wheel blocks some fading apartments, interrupting the breezy drive like a bad memory. Once useful, the wheel now lingers as a gaping cavity; waves froth around it viciously, but it doesn’t budge. Another frame centers a putrid, bulging pack of Kraft Mayo against a forest haze of strange, jerky branches, while yet another shows two pale, hairy legs that lead into a tangled, billowing plastic bag, natural light suffusing the condensation built up on the inside. Both the mayo and the bag blister, waiting to be punctured, their contents bodily and overripe. 1978–2000 holds you precariously, the blur and grain in each photograph threatening to dissolve into smog.

Robert Gober, Untitled, from the series 1978–2000, 1978–2000
Courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery

In its layers of both time and image, in the rephotographing and reprinting, 1978–2000 implicates the decay and willful revision of memory. If you can remember memories differently, should you? This question hits an emotional center as the installation directs viewers into a corner. There, in one photograph, framed by the inner thighs of a subject’s heavy denim jeans, is a clipping from the March 5, 1999 issue of the New York Times, which details the homophobic torture, killing, and burning of Billy Jack Gaither in rural Alabama by Steven Eric Mullins and Charles Monroe Butler, Jr. Gober has cut out only a fragment of the article, however; the lack of the full story heightens the abruptness of our imagined violence of the crime. The adjacent photograph in the installation builds on this composition, as Gober’s hand blocks the clipping, gently holding a letter to the editor that demands “Orthodox Jews, conservative Christians and others” should have the right to oppose homosexuality without being seen as bigots. Gober believes in freedom of speech, even when it hurts.

Robert Gober, Untitled, 1994
Courtesy the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami

At the ICA, 1978–2000 is balanced out by Untitled, which sits at the center of the gallery and doesn’t, at first glance, take up much physical space. The sculpture consists of a bronze grate in the ground that leads down a bricked hole to reveal the bare, beeswax chest of a man. A chrome-plated drain is lodged where his heart should be, and a shallow film of water gurgles over him, swaying the human hairs on his body. The grate and drain are both walls and holes, blocking but letting us look through; they pull all the dregs toward them, to be sucked in and never seen again. Untitled frames the body and makes it the center of attention, but then blocks it—like 1978–2000 does with its photographs of once-used debris that obstruct memory. You can see your reflection in the water, a specter beside the sculpted body, whose wax torso appears alive; it heaves somewhere between peace and distress. You don’t want to leave, but eventually you have to. Neither you nor anyone else can help that trapped body anyway.

Alex Jen is a writer and curator based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Robert Gober is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, through February 24, 2019.

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