Robert Gober’s The Heart Is Not a Metaphor

To live in a city like New York is like doing a master’s program in visuality. In inhabiting it, I have set out to see the good, the bad, the mediocre and the masterful. This is my way of sharing the knowledge I am acquiring: I elaborate in my notebook, my corral of images. My story. What I share has to do with an eagerness to keep a journal of my study of the –literal or metaphorical– body.


The Heart Is Not a Metaphor de Robert Gober 1 cama


The Heart Is Not a Metaphor is a body art exhibition that took over 13 galleries at the MoMA and included a retrospective of Gober’s 40-year career. Of course, it was entirely forbidden to take photos in that room. It is also important to admit that certain things are impossible to narrate.


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Robert Gober walks the viewer through the history of modern and contemporary art, from Dada and Surrealism to minimalism and conceptualism. Gober upholds a poetics of objects; he takes you, visually, through those moments of art history where the modern mentality emerged: the conceptualization of objects that originated in the studies of Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists, on to minimalism and conceptualism. I find Duchamp’s urinal very close to Gober’s sink –a series that began in 1984 as a response to the worst era of the AIDS epidemic.


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The resonance of humor: the pieces that contain it disarm you, because after laughter comes thought and the rethinking of objects. To stroll through this exhibition, organized by Ann Temkin, is an emotional-psychological voyage. In this installation you travel to a reality whose source is a sink; the journey is physical and psychological in one piece.


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The medium is plural. Gober employs painting, installation, and sculpture. He is like a hand-made Jeff Koons. The wallpaper of the exhibition is hand-painted, unlike Koons’s industrial style. Gober is an artisan, he does not delegate to others like Jeff Koons. Both are contemporary American artists, but Gober is the Jeff Koons of the other side.


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The package of cat food is hand-painted, letter-by-letter: the paper is not printed; there is no technology involved. This conflicts the paradigm of the contemporary artist who delegates the execution of some parts of his work because everything is in the idea, not in the form. I do not speak with prejudice towards those who work that way, but Gober returns to the constructor, the medieval sculptural trade.


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The dream element is recurrent, as well as the interrogation of gender. His is, in short, a work with homosexual sensibility. The running water basin is a metaphor for sexual liberation.




There are metaphors that guide you towards an imaginative journey: the idyllic forest, the sounds of falling water, the cold (because there seems to be no heating there). Everything leads to that feeling of moisture, where the viewer enters the experience. This is an experiential show.


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For this exhibition, Gober carved two holes in MoMA. He opened cavities on the floor of one of the most important art institutions in the world. The first thing you see during the tour is a half-open suitcase; when you look with detail, you notice a cave below, which is, according to my reading, a metaphor of the unconscious. There is a whole story inside that suitcase. The other hole was made for a Christ whose breasts sprout water.


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One of my favorite pieces is the one where you have to peer through the slits of a half-open door to snoop into two bathrooms, each one with a reader inside a tub with water running incessantly. This installation is sensual and intimate; it evokes the sensation of seizing the intimacy of another who, in turn, summons you to their act of cleaning, which seems to forgive your sneaking. The work of Robert Gober also alludes to the constant war of humans against filth, with his dolls made of wax and human hair.


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This exhibition made me feel many things. Not only does it make you think, it transports you to an intimate emotional moment, like a poet who leads you by the hand into your own feelings… Gober’s mastery in making emotional objects moved me greatly because, as I always make objects, objects to me become a metaphor and lead to emotion. They exist physically but lead to abstraction. Gober has this skill. Van Gogh said that he had an obsession: “that the objects were others.”



About the author:
Deborah Castillo is a Venezuelan artist dedicated to the arts of performance and sculpture. She currently lives and works in New York City.