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ART REVIEW

Articles of Faith for This World : Robert Gober's new installation at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary is a highly theatrical grotto of sacred and profane love.

September 09, 1997|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

One of the great things about Robert Gober's extravagant new installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art is that virtually every bit of it has been fabricated from scratch. Today, the genre of installation art usually means that an artist has gone shopping for commercially made objects, which he then carefully alters for display; by contrast, Gober's robust enthusiasm for actually making the myriad things in his piece carries the unexpected force of shock.

Furthermore, in this quietly beautiful installation, which opened Sunday at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary, the method of artisanal fabrication is also critical to the sculptural meaning of the work--and in ways more resonant than for any other Gober installation I've seen.

Gober has transformed the pristine space of the museum into something at once old-fashioned and brand-new: an unabashedly romantic grotto of sacred and profane love. Highly theatrical, the untitled piece engages sight and sound in order to seduce the viewer into a kind of baptism, both spiritual and material.

The sound of rushing water fills the central area of the museum's warehouse space. The large, dimly lit room is occupied by four component parts, arranged in a cruciform composition.

At the center stands a 6-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, which, as photographic documentation in the helpful catalog shows, was first modeled in clay and then cast in concrete. She gazes downward, her arms outstretched in a gesture of openness inviting succor.

Dramatically, the Virgin's midsection has been pierced by a spiraling tube of bronze culvert pipe, also 6 feet long. Hollow, the conduit makes the sculpture into another cruciform shape. An inescapable image of phallic penetration merges with the mysterious void of her womb.

The Virgin's bare feet rest atop a prison-like grate. At a depth of about 8 feet below the level of the floor, and seen through a brick-lined shaft, a brightly lit pool of water is filled with lichen-covered rocks, mussels, clams, seaweed and hugely oversized coins--pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters.

Part tide pool where life evolves, part wishing well where hopes are tossed, the pool suggests a blissful underworld of dreams and aspirations at once commonplace and larger than life. Beneath the floor of the museum, where culture's ordered icons stand, nature's messy beauty swirls.

In the wall behind the Virgin, visible through the culvert pipe and framing her figure from across the room, a doorway opens onto a tall staircase, its 15 cedar steps climbing out of sight. A torrent of glistening water cascades down this metaphorical stairway to heaven, obstructing passage while also creating a contemplative fountain out of a domestic scene.

When the rushing water reaches the floor it puddles at the edge of another bronze grate, before pouring forcefully down into a deep, subterranean pool lit with blindingly bright white light. The view into this splashing, glaring pool is a stunning sight, at once cool and searing, like a hypnotic space of revelation beneath your feet.

To the right and left of the Virgin, matching suitcases stand open on the floor, facing one another. Greatly oversized, like the pennies and nickels at the bottom of the center pool, they're old-fashioned in style: Lined in black silk, with elastic-edged pockets, and trimmed on the outside in leather and brass, these accouterments for travel also suggest a time gone by.

Inside each suitcase is another bronze grate, opening onto another brick shaft above another subterranean tide pool, glowing beneath the museum floor. Stand behind the open suitcase and peer down into the rippling water, and you can catch the sight of a man's bare legs, wading in the pool, along with those of an infant he seems to be dangling above the water.

Certain aspects of Gober's installation obviously recall Marcel Duchamp's famous "Etant donnes" (1946-1966), another meditative installation that engages themes of sacred and profane love. Gober's waterfall and the fragmentary wax figures of man and child glimpsed through pipes and grates recall the erotic, enigmatic tableau in "Etant donnes," seen through peepholes in a closed door. And its over-the-top theatricality always keeps your position as a manipulated spectator in the foreground.

Duchamp, rather than Picasso or Matisse, has been the single most important historical figure for the direction of art since the 1960s, and Gober's work is but one among a long line of examples. More than any other contemporary artist, though, he has worked against the typical way in which his colleagues have tended to rely on that precedent.

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