Robert Gober’s Sinks are among the most significant, thought-provoking works of his career. Meticulously hand crafted between 1984 and 1986, they number around forty unique examples, many of which are now housed in museum collections around the world. Taken as a cohesive group, Gober’s Sinks share basic formal similarities with the original porcelain sinks of the artist’s childhood. Yet ultimately no two of them are exactly alike and endless variations on the theme provided Gober with a rich visual lexicon from which to work. As the series progressed, the artist created increasingly complex permutations on the theme, often exaggerating, elongating and distorting the sink in strange and unexpected combinations. In Untitled, exquisitely crafted by Gober in 1985, the synonymous wall-mounted sink lives in the shadowy recesses of the corner, its unusual shape resulting from the marriage of two identical sink forms. Like a spider skittering up the wall, Untitled retains a strange, anthropomorphic quality, appearing as if from a feverish dream. With its unique L-shaped form, Untitled mimics the shape of The Inverted Sink (Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo), and deftly demonstrates the magical sleight of hand that Gober already wielded by this time in his early career.
Robert Gober’s first sculpture of a sink, The Small Sink, dates to 1983, and was a rather primitive version of the sinks he would begin in earnest in 1984. For the most part, Gober’s Sinks are based on his childhood memories. The vivid recollection of the porcelain washbasin in his grandparents’ kitchen and the nearly identical sink in his father’s basement workshop provided the impetus for the series. He recalls: “The basement is basically where my father lived, and I think...you learn as a young boy unconsciously about a person and a man from your father. The sink was in my parents’ basement, but it was also in both of my grandparents’ kitchens when I was a kid. I was struck by its form and beauty as much upstairs as I was downstairs. Also, in the basement we had windows, and I remember washing peaches in the sink and sunlight coming through the cellar windows, hitting the water and the peaches in the sink. And, even as a young boy, being struck by the magical beauty of water and sunlight in these beautiful white structures of porcelain sinks” (R. Gober, “Interview: Richard Flood and Robert Gober,” in R. Flood, et. al., Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, exh. cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1999, p. 130)
As Gober described, the way that lingering childhood memories flood the mind without regard for chronological sequence or exact details, is a common human experience, with imagery emerging in bits and pieces. One or two powerful images may inundate the brain, overwhelming in their nearly photographic precision, conveying the remembered scene with an intensity that goes beyond accuracy to become hyper-real. For Gober, the sunlight as it danced across the running water, the fuzziness of the peaches and the gleaming white porcelain sink, with its smooth surface and the coolness of its material has become knitted into the fabric of his memory. As he increasingly varies, transforms and mutates the forms of his sinks, he plays on the magical, hyper-real aspect of these remembered scenes.
Each variation allows for new meanings or interpretations to emerge from the original, with greater permutations evoking the way that memories—especially those from childhood—are apt to become twisted, mis-remembered or misconstrued, becoming larger-than-life in the mind’s eye.
In Untitled, Gober creates a version of the utilitarian porcelain sink one might find in the average home around the time of the Second World War, which had also become popular in schools and government institutions because of its no-frills design and deep, wide basin. Because they evoke a simpler, bygone era, Gober’s Sinks are imbued with a keen sense of nostalgia, the specifics of which vary according to each individual’s memories and experiences. As curator Olga 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).
In Untitled, Gober lets his imagination run wild, creating a strange, sink-like form whose functionality is nullified. Devoid of running water, a tap, or even a drain, Gober’s creation loses its original purpose, leaving the real-world behind to join the realm of high art. As if by some magical feat, Gober’s sink stretches, elongates and turns the corner, climbing up the side wall like a shape-shifter whose form has mysteriously hardened into porcelain. The familiarity of the sink’s form is exactly what compels such unease in the viewer: so much like a sink, yet so utterly unlike anything found in the real world. It exudes the uncanny feeling that the Surrealists’ termed frisson—the unexpected, chill-producing effect that two seemingly illogical objects could produce when combined. Like Méret Oppenheim’s Objet, the fur-covered teacup and saucer she created in 1936, or Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, in which time itself dissolves into melted chaos, Gober’s Untitled touches on a world where solid surfaces, known objects and even memories dissolve, becoming distorted and bizarre, entering into a nightmarish realm known only within the deepest recesses of the mind.
As a child, Gober recalled the magical beauty of water, as he washed a bowl of peaches in his grandmother’s sink and indeed, water has long been a significant source of inspiration for the artist. In 1992 Gober created a site-specific installation for the DIA Center for the Arts in New York, this time including running water. Subsequent works evoked the myriad incarnations of water—from tide pools to bathtubs—and the symbolic power of water as a purifier.
In Untitled, because Gober presents a distorted and non-functioning sink, he exploits the powerful associations that water can evoke, especially the lack of water, which may symbolize the themes of purification and bodily pollution, two key issues for a gay male artist raised in the strict doctrine of the Catholic Church. Indeed, if the sink stands as a modern repository for the elimination of dirt and waste, a modern convention of daily personal hygiene that renders a dirty body clean, then what does Gober’s tapless, pipeless, distorted sink signify? The question is especially pertinent considering that Gober lived through the ravaging effects of HIV and AIDS in New York City during the 1980s and ‘90s.