The haunting, minimalist beauty and deeply felt emotional resonance that pervades Robert Gober’s best work has made him one of the most important artists of the Contemporary era. In 1984, he embarked upon a series that would fundamentally alter the course of his career when he replicated, by hand using the humble materials of plaster, wood and enamel paint, an industrially fabricated sink and urinal. The corresponding series that followed embodied the spare, reductivist aesthetic of minimalism while being encoded with personal memories and dreams. They provided a rich vocabulary of forms that sustained the artist for several years. Created in 1985, Urinal is a seminal work from this early series. It displays the technical virtuosity of its meticulously hand-made construction, a cunning play on Duchamp’s La Fontaine, yet fabricated by hand rather than ready-made. The work perfectly invokes the standard-issue receptacle found in any men’s room, yet Gober omits the plumbing so necessary to its function. It seems to invoke the symbolism of cleansing while utterly denying its possibility. An early iteration of Gober’s signature series, Urinal has been exhibited around the world, making it an iconic emblem of the artist’s longstanding concerns.
In Urinal, Gober imbues the anonymous, institutional quality of a standard-issue men’s room urinal with the warmth of his handmade materials. Nearly every feature has been rendered in perfect verisimilitude, from the holes at the bottom of the bowl to the exacting size and shape of the original receptacle. His great care in rendering its smooth, graceful surface is revealed in the slight undulations and minute differences that remain as a powerful reminder of the artist’s hand. The simplicity of the object’s form shines through, as it leaves its original function behind to become an object of spare elegance and lasting grace. If Duchamp’s La Fontaine is the work’s progenitor, then a related cousin might be found in Donald Judd’s “common objects.”
Though Gober’s objects are re-created versions of their industrial counterparts, the fact of the artist’s hand remains a powerful reminder of their home-spun quality, and the viewer longs to touch their tactile surface. From a distance, Gober’s Urinal looks like a standard-issue vessel. Installed upon the wall, its uncanny resemblance to the real thing provokes a strange shock, arresting the viewer with a powerful curiosity that begs to be investigated. The difference, in temperature, texture and feeling between Gober’s creation and its original industrial counterpart creates a strange dissonance, affecting the viewer on a primal level. As Olga M. Viso points out, “As potent stimulants of memory and emotion, Gober’s works disturb us because of their uncanny familiarity, their curious juxtapositions of one object with another, and their potential to activate latent desires and anxieties in the viewer” (O. Viso, “Life’s Small Epiphanies,” Robert Gober: The United States Pavilion 49th Venice Biennale, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2001, p. 14).
The radical aspect of Gober’s Urinal lies not only in its meticulous construction but in the context of its placement, as Gober transfers a very private act into a highly public sphere. Whereas Duchamp placed his urinal upon a plinth and rotated it, transforming the object from its former utilitarian purpose into “readymade” art, Gober insists upon keeping the context of the original, and installs the piece upon the gallery wall. Doing so provokes a bizarre chill, bringing the embarrassment and perhaps shame of the “men’s room” into the public space of the gallery. Curator Trevor Fairbrother describes: “In the case of the urinal, Gober’s act of artistic reformation triggers the turmoil of feelings that lurk in the men’s room: he takes an object that hygiene, plumbing, and industrial design have functionalized into a purist, white-on-white device and brings to the surface all that is volatile and taboo about men pissing in view of each other. Professing the formal beauty of this banal item he also dares to speak out about the psychological and physiological desires mediated at the urinal” (T. Fairbrother, “Robert Gober,” Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1990, p 43).
Over the course of his career, Gober has alluded to the significance of water in his work, and the urinals reference this primary concern. In Urinal, Gober faithfully replicates the original receptacle down to its most precise attribute, yet he opted to eliminate its most fundamental aspect: plumbing. The urinals, then, elicit the sort of private horror of a toilet that won’t flush, or the impotence of a faucet that discharges no water. This interest in water as a transformative element might relate to Gober’s Catholic upbringing and the symbolism of bodily fluids—water, blood—in the church. It also relates more profoundly to the AIDS crisis in New York and the hysteria that surrounded hygiene, particularly for that of gay men. Gober’s dual identity as both Catholic and homosexual converge in the urinals, which allude to the symbolic cleansing power of holy water in the church—water as a purifier—and the perceived “sinful” quality of homosexuality. They seem to indicate the nightmarish scenario in which the dirty body can never be cleansed, and they allude to the body’s own inability to rid itself of disease, primarily the immune system’s powerlessness to eradicate the AIDS virus. Indeed, Gober has discussed these highly-charged connotations, saying of the urinal series: “It was also too loaded for me in its sexual and social connotations” (R. Gober, quoted in C. Gholson, “Robert Gober,” Bomb magazine, vol. 29, Fall 1989; accessed April 1 2016 via http://bombmagazine.org/article/1252/robert-gober).
If the purpose of urination is to rid the body of excess waste, then the urinal might function as a symbol of cleansing, much in the way Gober’s Sinks provided a similar purpose. Indeed, Gober’s work often references hidden memories or latent desires, and his urinals recall the shame associated with being gay in the wake of the AIDS crisis. Indeed, as Paula Marincola illustrated in her review of Gober’s work in 1988: “The sculptures’ obvious lack of functionality permitted their intrinsically associative qualities and ritualistic functions to dominate… The installation as a whole thus suggested a kind of memento mori, enhanced by the objects’ intensely concentrated stillness…This pervasive sense of loss and absence lent these works, despite their physicality, something of the spectral quality of simulacra or ghosts” (P. Marincola, “Robert Gober: Tyler School of Art Gallery,” Artforum, May 1988, p. 153). Indeed, the visual and emotional power of Gober’s objects lie in their ability to communicate hidden desires and fears, tucked away in seemingly ordinary objects. Urinal is one of the artist’s most highly-charged emblems from a seminal period of the artist’s early career, a haunting visual totem that is imbued with personal memory and heart-wrenching loss.