Staring Down the One-Eyed Monster
I saw Robert Gober’s The Heart Is Not A Metaphor with my dad. It was okay. I admired the cheeky irreverence of the work and many of the curatorial choices, but my memory of the whole thing is colored by a very distinctive shade of discomfort; the kind you’ll only recognize if you, too, have stood alone in a quiet room with your father, surrounded by giant genitalia. It’s a particularly mortifying sensation derived from a mutually failed attempt to ignore the penises raining down upon you. You may succeed at maintaining conversation, but it will not be casual. It will be the mechanical stuff of acquaintances under the gun—many guns—with both of you conscious that they might go off at any minute. Roll together the shock your childhood self experienced when barging unannounced into your parents’ room that Saturday morning, with the horror of your parents barging in on teenaged you flying solo, and the vibe may begin to crystallize with nauseous clarity. A masterpiece of singular discomfort.
We were at the MoMA, celebrating my mom’s 60th birthday with some Matisse cutouts. Moms love Matisse. My mom especially. They also love—maybe; secretly—everyday objects as high art: the glorification of the mundane and the carnal in the quotidien. My mom maybe not especially. I’m not sure. But the re-imagining of an everyday sink as a saggy-breasted wall ornament or the piquant transfiguration of a common candle into something phallic and pube-y—the sexualization of ordinary house wares—these are things that make adults smile. These are things we laugh at.
So as we passed the Robert Gober, I suggested we pop through on our way out.
I wasn’t trying to give my mom a really special birthday treat, like, “In lieu of promised exotic dancers, please accept these renderings of pouchy nudes lying w/ flaccid parts co-mingling.” I just wanted to see the exhibit and rarely found myself in midtown, because midtown is a frenetic place of paralyzing crowds. On this special occasion, though, we were there and we had time, and I thought it might be a crowd-pleaser: my mom is all about art museums, but my dad hates them—unless you happen to find an exhibit that tickles him. And there’s a certain formula to this; a specific sub-genre of art entirely unknown to historians and incoherent in period or school or even medium. It’s made up of a certain number of subjects he likes, treated in ways that make him chuckle. Dogs doing human things; nostalgic trinkets from his childhood, re-imagined; big, tactile installation pieces; things that can take or are built on subversive humor. He likes impressive old paintings, sure, but only when their subjects—mannish infants, or, more particularly, Christ—sport expressions out of sync with the scene depicted, inviting him to give the works more modern names, such as, “Hangover Jesus.”
His taste in art and my taste in art overlap quite a bit, actually. Our shared impatience with the chilly, marbled museums of Europe—their National Galleries of master works/monotony—may be the tie that binds us. Or, it’s the tie that’s pulled us through our past few family vacations, whenever the clock strikes two museums past lunchtime, and the tourists are crowding, and you can either laugh or succumb to the tantrum.
My dad and I make jokes. We stand before the portraits of saints and offer our own backstories, none of which have anything to do with martyrdom or hermitude. We’re more like that scene in Beginners, in which young Ewen and his mother take in abstract sculpture—we don’t resort to contemporary dance, and we’ve never been escorted from a premises, but we approach the viewing event with a playful pomp, gravitating toward those pieces that invite re-interpretation. So he trusts my judgement and will follow me willingly into any exhibit I recommend. Or would have. Now, I’m not so sure—I’ve abused the privilege; cast doubt on the relationship. I was acting on a whim, leading us into the Gober. Sex wasn’t something I’d factored into the equation.
Because that’s not a thing my family discusses, really, which is strange, because I talk about sex frequently in my uncensored life. When I’m among friends, it’s probably the biggest topic of conversation: the relationships; the gender politics; the questions and the attendant shared experiences—it comes up. A lot. But the acute discomfort of enduring a sex scene with my parents is a thing I fear I’ll never escape. Even if I were, at some far more mature age, to birth a child, I don’t think the miracle of life is one we could comfortably confront together. In my 25 years, I’ve acknowledged my romantic life to them fewer times than I can or would care to count on a hand. I think it’s better that way. They have their secrets; I have mine. Things are left to the heavily edited imagination, and everyone can go about their business unencumbered.
But then there are times when it’s there, waving its big, naked butt in our faces. When we’re watching HBO, say, or when we’re on a casual birthday outing at the MoMA. As unpredictable as a teenage boy’s erection, these situations just pop up. And then we must navigate them, fumbling our way through; the blind bumping into the blind and hoping not to graze a breast. So it was with Robert Gober.
It started with the sinks. The sinks were simple enough. Washing oneself clean of the AIDS epidemic with tools insufficient to do any real good. Then the second room, with crib walls slanted past the point of practicality and ever more abstract basins hung at heights impossible for hand-washing. My dad liked the graveyard outside on the terrace, a morbid little bedside view looking seasonally appropriate in the December gray. The phallic candle, though—that should have been a signpost. A waxy column of spermy white, tufted at its base with crinkly pubes. I looked across the gallery and saw my mom giggling, waving my dad over with one hand and pointing at the candle with the other. At least she’s getting a kick out of it, was all I thought, sliding past her and into the next room, a space wallpapered in fever dream sketches: a man hung from a tree bough alongside a fitful sleeper. A buxom, bodiless dress planted at its center—a ghost at a feast.
My dad came in behind me, remarking approvingly on the window box cemetery with a passing glance at the gown. I agreed about the nightmarish vista, cracking some joke that fell flat as we crossed the threshold to the next room, when my words caught on the spike of every father and daughter’s shared nightmare. This was obviously the Rumpus Room; a tawdry chamber of dark-blue wallpaper with big, white line drawings of male and female parts. An anatomy text book laid bare for us to examine together.
We were trapped; alone together with P and Va-G everywhere and nowhere else to look. I attempted an easy air of nothing-is-weird-about-this, as if I had seen the decorative scheme so many times, I hardly noticed it anymore; as if there were nothing awkward about these vaginas blooming all around us, nor about the members rising to greet them. Did he notice my definite-if-fleeting intake of breath? Did he clock the way it punctuated the conversation, or the artificial levity I affected thereafter—a transparent attempt at blinding myself to the smattering of dicks creeping over my own father’s shoulders like weird fingers? Did anyone else feel that suffocating heat, or was it just me?
I have not one single idea what other objets d’art were featured in that room. I imagine it now and see only a boundless wall of privates and my father’s face, embarrassed and caged and groping for anything that wasn’t more body parts. A man without recourse. A man who never asked for this; never wanted to be here with his little girl; who suddenly found himself up to his ears in cocks, and foundering fast.
The situation was tense, and would only have been made more so by becoming a family affair. Before my mother could join us, we booked it to the next room, where naked legs greeted us, lolling ass-up on the floor and tattooed with sheet music, or sprouting more penis candles. Better, to be sure. Butts are no sweat, really; the bread and butter of potty humor. Something that would have entertained us on any other museum visit; sustained our good humor until our late lunch reservation. But after the dick room, it would be every man for himself.
I tried to keep adequate distance between us, zooming past the sprawling nudes to gain ground. Leaving him in the forest of kaleidoscopic trees, I paused to stand nose-to-nose with a dog mask, only registering how closely the snout resembled a phallus when it was already too late , as the telltale footsteps were falling behind me.
I watched the merry crackle of a fire stoked with disembodied children’s legs, refusing to really acknowledge the pastel study of genitals that probably served as the model for the full-scale piece. I resented it for that. I peeked behind doors at naked bodies in the bath. I spent a long time marveling at the addition of a sparse toupee to a wedge of cheese—a selective seeding of long, mousey strands; greasy, pube-like hairs exactly evoking a rat. I peered into the aquatic wonderland of the metro sewers through a suitcase on the floor, waiting for my father to become ensnared in its depths before I skeezled off to the next thing. The trick was to remain one step ahead of him at all times until we’d put the fiasco behind us.
When we emerged on the other side, we weren’t better people for our shared voyeuristic experience, but we were (remarkably) no worse. For all the discomfort I’ve expressed here, I’d equate it to the feeling of watching a particularly steamy love scene with my parents—I wished they or I hadn’t been there, and like I would have enjoyed the experience in more age appropriate, less related-to-me company. And maybe more than anything, I felt like a child for still being so squeamish about beholding the splendor of the naked human body in the presence of my parents.
Because the bottom line is this: we are all adult humans and we all like sex. Having it, talking about it, thinking about it—it’s amusing, enjoyable, and the thing at the root of our existence. It’s the undercurrent in most everything and it almost always goes unacknowledged: Gober calls it out in places you don’t expect it, and in assertive, frank ways. So you laugh, maybe because you’re uncomfortable or maybe because it’s clever. Probably both. Regardless, it’s captivating; entertaining, this exploration of all these objects we’ve created to navigate our lives in comfort, and a reminder of the basic instinct at the heart of it all—the thing we’re thinking about around the clock; the reason we do most of what we do; the elephant in the room or the penis on the wall. Sex is our common thread and Gober tugs it masterfully.
So if you are considering taking your parents to the Gober exhibit, here’s what I can say: It’s awkward, but it won’t kill you. If you can ignore the vaginas opening all around —if you will insist on imagining the dicks in their underwear, even—your mortification will become a more manageable beast. You won’t literally die of embarrassment. I didn’t feel, afterward, like I couldn’t even. I felt like I probably didn’t want to again soon—no immediate need to take in more art w/ loins, side-by-side with the man from whose I sprang—but I was glad we saw it. Glad we got that out of the way, because really, it was about time that my parents and I had the talk (or at least alluded to it). Perhaps we all grew up a little bit that day.
Or perhaps this is just the logic I construct for myself to dull the prickly and nagging inkling that Gober stole whatever innocence I’ve managed to preserve these many years and threw it on his pyre of baby legs, leaving my dad and I to watch it burn in awkward silence. Maybe the playful and pleasing aesthetic can’t make up for that funerary fire or give me back what had been mine. And maybe that’s exactly where Gober’s genius lies: in highlighting the worth of what you’ve got only when what you’ve got is gone. Once its function has been subverted or its meaning torn away, the significance of that thing you always took for granted is bound to change. Even if you manage to get it back, you won’t get back your relationship to it. Not the one you had, anyway. We learn value through absence, and sometimes by staring down the one-eyed monster, side-by-side with dad.