Stop, Look and Look Again

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Since its opening in 1983, the Museum of Contemporary Art's cavernous space in Little Tokyo has been the scene of many startling sights. Sculptor Chris Burden has excavated a massive hole in the building's concrete floor; Ann Carlson and Mary Ellen Strom have installed a live rodeo, complete with horse; dancers in the Elizabeth Streb Ringside company have crashed through plate glass walls and bounced off spring-loaded floors.

The surprise factor is part of the point of the vast, flexible, warehouse-like outpost--originally known as the Temporary Contemporary but now called the Geffen Contemporary, in honor of entertainment mogul David Geffen's $5-million gift to the museum. The 55,000-square-foot facility gives enormous latitude to artists and encourages experimentation, while MOCA's beautiful but relatively staid main building, up the hill on Grand Avenue, provides a more conventional exhibition space.

Still, even the most seasoned TC/GC aficionados probably will be taken aback by Robert Gober's new installation, which opens next Sunday. Unlike some of its most astonishing predecessors, Gober's work doesn't pack its first punch in a spectacle of audacity, bravado or sheer physical effort. He makes an impression by turning a strangely familiar world upside down.

Seen from the ramp leading down to the central, square enclosure occupied by the artwork, Gober's installation is symmetrical, serene and dark, except for theatrical lighting designed by Jennifer Tipton. The focal point is a larger-than-lifesize statue of the Virgin Mary with outstretched hands, standing in the center of the room. Cast in concrete and sandblasted to resemble a weathered statue in a cemetery or garden, she's a peaceful figure, but her body is pierced by a bronze culvert pipe that casts a long shadow on the lower part of her robe.

As visitors look beyond the Virgin, they will notice she is framed by a cedar stairway built into the back wall of the room. A torrent of water from an unseen source rushes down the stairs at the rate of 180 gallons a minute, puddles at the bottom and disappears into a grate in the floor.

And that isn't all there is to see in Gober's sparsely furnished room. On either side of the statue, an oversize, old-fashioned suitcase sits on the floor with its lid wide open, inviting visitors to come closer and inspect the contents.

Even at a distance, the installation is Essence of Gober--which is to say he has outdone himself to create an enormously complicated, psychologically charged environment that only appears to be simple. The 42-year-old New York-based artist is known for meticulously handcrafted sculptures and environments that focus on banal objects but grapple with the anxieties of sexual identity, racial prejudice, bodily functions, obsessive cleanliness and the Catholic faith.

One of the most influential and challenging American artists to achieve internationalprominence in the 1980s, Gober has compiled an impressive body of conceptual sculpture. Among many other pieces, he has created a wedding gown and had himself photographed in it; sculpted industrial sinks and drains; fashioned wax replicas of human legs that protrude from walls; and designed wallpaper that depicts a dense forest, human genitalia or a white man sleeping near a lynched black man.

Gober's new work at the GC exemplifies his penchant for presenting equivocal meanings and messy feelings in neat packages. In formal terms, there are no loose ends, no fuzzy edges. Yet, when visitors walk into the installation and explore it, they will discover an entirely different universe below the surface along with a labyrinth of metaphorical possibilities.

"I think it may be disappointing at first," Gober said of his new work, while supervising its construction. "It's quite dark. But you will hear the water and that will make you want to get closer to see it. Then it's a process of finding."

The major revelation is that the Virgin and the suitcases stand on cast bronze grates above simulated tide pools, installed eight feet below the concrete floor. Looking straight down into the grates and through brick shafts just below them, visitors will see brightly lighted pools, teeming with hand-made seaweed, rocks, shells and coins immersed in swirling water. Reflections of sky and clouds are projected on the water from color transparencies.

Walking around the suitcases and peering in from one side, viewers will suddenly discover the realistically sculpted bare feet and lower legs of a man who stands in the pool while dipping the feet of a diaper-clad baby into the water. It's as if a slice of an idyllic, brilliantly sunny summer day at the beach has been transplanted underground. The subterranean scene contrasts sharply with the still, dark solemnity of the mausoleum-like room above.

Reversing the usual positions of dark and light is the fundamental issue of the complex piece, and the one that finally made it work for Gober, the artist said. What goes on above ground is generally associated with light and life, while the underground connotes darkness and death. But here symbols of the unconscious are turned around, he said. "The tide pools are very clean and sparkling with reflected light. They convey the feeling of regeneration."

Installing the piece at the GC is the culmination of a four-year quest. It began with a proposal by Gober to create a major work for MOCA, but turned into a psychic struggle that delayed the project for a year and completely changed it.

Working with the museum's chief curator, Paul Schimmel, Gober originally planned to build a three-level house, including a basement. Each floor would have been about 30 feet square. Thosewho entered the house or peered in through windows would have seen a staircase with water flowing down it and various sculptures replicating domestic objects.

The house seemed to be a logical extension of Gober's earlier work. Having fabricated dollhouses in the 1970s as a means of supporting himself, Gober had become so fascinated with their forms and symbolism that he began to make houses as sculptures, sometimes conceiving of them as metaphors for the body. But what initially seemed a good idea for a walk-in project eventually weighed him down.

"I got stuck," Gober said. "I finally decided to get away from the house. The metaphor was too limiting. People would have become involved with solving the mystery of the house or thinking about what might have gone on there. It became a burden."

Simplifying the house to a single room, about two years ago Gober began to develop a more ambiguous environment that would incorporate religious imagery--a sort of "domestic church," as Schimmel calls it.

As it turns out, that's rich territory for Gober. The homosexual son of working-class Catholics, he was baptized and confirmed, and even served as an altar boy, but he soon found himself at odds with traditional church doctrine. He was enthralled as a child by the theatricality of Catholic rituals and the strong presence of human images. Those experiences have stayed with him and inspired some of his work, but so have memories of a repressive atmosphere.

"I have no problem with Catholicism in terms of faith, I just object to the way it's taught," he said. "I wanted to ventilate that and complicate that, in terms of life." While the spiral drain pipe literally pokes a hole in the Virgin and her protective dogma, it also functions as a phallic symbol that penetrates her body bloodlessly, as Schimmel notes in his catalog essay.

Many interpretations are possible, but it seems inevitable that the image will offend some viewers. "I've had some troubled nights about using a beloved icon, putting her on a grate, opening her up, piercing her with a pipe," Gober said. But so far, objections have dissipated.

The only serious resistance he has faced so far came from the Italian family in New York that cast the sculpture in concrete from Gober's clay model. "They said, 'You shouldn't be doing this. If you were a Muslim [and made a similarly heretical artwork], you'd be dead,' " he said. But they agreed to do the project and their attitudes changed in the process.

"I don't know why," Gober said. "Maybe it was just that they got to know me while I was in the shop. Or maybe it was pride in their craftsmanship. But they eventually thought the statue was quite beautiful."

In designing his own image of the Virgin Mary, Gober looked at standard figurines sold in Catholic stores and decided on a pose with open arms. "I like the inclusiveness of the gesture," he said. "It makes her earthly. It's about her and everyone else. When she is praying, it's only about her and God."

Likening his interpretation of the Virgin to "Jesus being drawn to beggars," Gober said it was important to place the figure on the floor. "That way you can feel and touch her humanity." Another significant point, he said, is that "she watched her child die. The statue is a symbol of a mother who watched her son be crucified, and yet she endured. It's a symbol of mercy for humankind."

Placing the figure on a grate above one of the tide pools connects her to the lively underground scene. The baby takes the symbolism one step further in an embodiment of a new life, Gober said.

Chatting thoughtfully about the many layers of meaning in every component of his work, Gober had come a long way--through a perplexing dilemma of what, exactly, the installation should be and how to fabricate it. Only three months ago in New York, he had been reluctant to discuss the work in more than a preliminary way because he didn't want to interpret it prematurely.

Somewhat earlier, while modeling the figure from life and working in clay over a metal support wrapped in plaster, he had worried about what sort of face the Virgin should have. "At one point, I was wondering, who she was," he said. "Was she me? Was she my mother?" The face was such a problem that he put a bag over the sculpture's head for a while. But he finally decided the face really didn't matter; it should just be a generic Madonna visage.

The suitcases, painstakingly crafted of pigskin and forged hardware on a wood structure, will probably evoke thoughts of actual travel as well as emotional and spiritual journeys for most viewers. Gober has a slightly different idea. "For me, the suitcases are about being an adult, where you go and what you take with you," he said.

The grates, on the other hand, are gateways between the dark room and the light tide pools. To design them, Gober looked at lots of real grates on city streets, then came up with a composite--"the quintessential grate," he said.

As for the tide pools, Gober had thought of creating one in an urban setting nearly a decade ago while contemplating a public sculpture, but the idea never came to fruition. Then last summer on a trip to Maine he was struck by the beauty and life of tide pools. Suddenly they offered the key to his MOCA work in progress.

But it wasn't easy to re-create them. Returning to Maine, he hammered metal over large rocks to simulate contours of the pools, collected mussels, shells and seaweed, and took hundreds of photographs.

The seaweed alone was a considerable challenge. Made of synthetic rubber and died various shades of green, it consists of 750 strands attached to lead sinkers. Viewed through the grates, the seaweed wiggles and floats quite realistically. But that wasn't the case during a trial run; after about three weeks the first batch of seaweed became waterlogged and sank like a stone. Trying a new tactic, Gober and his assistants used a vacuum chamber to suck all the air out of the simulated seaweed. "It was a pain in the ass," he said.

Indeed, the MOCA project--which will not travel to any other museum--is the result of extraordinary effort. Gober has worked on it full time for the last two years with several assistants. He even rented an industrial space in Chelsea specifically for the project because he needed a place to fabricate the components and experiment with moving water. Among other preliminary measures, he built a mock staircase to figure out the volume and velocity of water needed to create the desired effect.

"Occasionally I thought the technical production was getting the best of me," he said. "It's very complicated with light, moving water, electricity, above-ground and below-ground elements. But the problem solving is interesting. My work always involves that."

Gober's art has always been labor- and meaning-intensive. However, the technical and metaphorical aspects of the new installation both represent a big leap for him, he said. Now that the concrete is dry, the water is running, the seaweed is floating and the lights have been adjusted, though, he's pleased with the result.

As for the imminent public and critical reception, he's easy. His work has been misinterpreted in the past. "But that's OK," Gober said. "It's fair game."

*

* "Robert Gober," Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Next Sunday through Jan. 4. Adults, $6; senior citizens and students, $4; children under 12, free. (213) 626-6222.

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