I recently visited Robert Gober’s The Heart is Not a Metaphor at the MoMA, and at the core of the exhibition was a dark room with Gober’s Slides of a Changing Painting. Gober had a small 11 x 14 inch board that he painted and re-painted on and off throughout the year between 1982 and 1983. He documented the changes to the painting through thousands of photographs, which then became slides that he projected.
The slideshow moves back and forth, from moments in an interior space to scenes outdoors. Autumnal New England leaves fill up the empty room, turning into a tangled web of tree branches that open onto a momentarily still lake. A hand reaches for a seashell that resembles an ear and is nestled in the grass, only to find a mysterious second hand emerging to take it. A story is located on a human chest that changes gender and age freely. The chest collapses in on itself; a stream of water overcomes the throat; nipples grow tall into trees; dark hair sprouts on one side while the other forms a round breast. The empty crevices between the arm and the ribcage linger as the space changes from chest back to room, making me become suddenly aware of my own moist armpits as well as those of the man who sits in front of me. Those armpit crevices become tall triangles of black, then red, marking the absence of the body and then its return. The nipples on the chest multiply, becoming marks and freckles whose form and color match exactly the knots on the wooden bench that I am sitting on. The narrative reaches out into the space, trying to grow closer to the person observing it with incredible care and attention to detail.
Within the slideshow there are objects painted seemingly from observation (a drain, a coffee cup or books on a table) that are intermingled with paintings from a dream-like imagination. This exchange develops the sense of the year passing through seasons and states of mind. Each object and image is endowed with a potentiality containing both a history and a future. Water permeates the entire narrative, flowing, pouring and pooling through the body, the interiors and the forest. The water evolves into a woven pattern of flesh and liquid that brings with it destruction, renewal and regeneration.
The projected slides move from one to the other through dissolve transitions, a vital, technical detail implemented by Gober. The projector’s set up creates a layered visual narrative that differs from a standard animation as the light and images float forwards and backwards along a visual axis between projector and screen, rather than linearly from left to right. As I watch the piece, I sit squarely in the middle of this axis with the changing screen in front of me, and the noisy projector behind me. The piece feels as if it is trying to get as close as possible to me, to absorb and overwhelm me as the images stretch themselves in and out of intimate revelation. The exchange between interior and exterior dominates not only the animation, but the environment and the viewer’s state of mind.
The narrative creates an evocative atmosphere of loss and regrowth, speaking to mortality, the cycle of life and, of course, the time in which it was made: the height of the AIDS epidemic. It is a circular narrative, echoed in the three circular slide carriers in the projector as they fill the room with their meditative thumping. The projector’s rhythmic pace marks the passing time, particularly the moment of reset that announces itself with a cacophony of clacks.
Slides of a Changing Painting was originally exhibited at Gober’s first solo show at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1984, when Gober was 30 years old. The show was up for a mere five days to a select audience. It has rarely been shown to the public and I am sure that I am one among many who waited in suspense for its arrival at MoMA. The piece itself, therefore, embodies mystery, longing and discovery not only for the artist, but also for its viewers and followers.
Having now seen Slides of a Changing Painting in person, it is clear that it has served Gober immensely as many of his subsequent sculptures seem to have emerged out of the slideshow’s images. In fact, he made his first sinks the year the slideshow was completed. Gober’s recurring image of the suspended, empty dress appears in Slides… hanging from tree branches and overwhelmed by a conscious energy of blue water. Gober’s numerous door sculptures that penetrate the exhibition spaces they inhabit also find their origin in Slides… His first image of a closed door appears in the slideshow at the center of a man’s chest, drawing a parallel between door and male body, while questioning the nature of the door itself: what it is hiding, what it might reveal, what its purpose is and who it belongs to.
Slides of a Changing Painting has the capacity to transcend its own physical space in meaning and influence. It is, in actuality, entirely immaterial, as it is a documentation of a series of paintings that no longer exist. Gober spoke of this as a response to neo-expressionism, emphatically embracing the transformative and ritualistic process of painting, while also questioning the importance of painting as an object. He states, “Among other things, the work was a reaction to the time, with its glut of neo-expressionist painting. I wanted to make many images, a surfeit of images, and images that weren’t for sale.”
Because Slides of a Changing Painting permeates the rest of Gober’s works, for me, speaking about the work singularly has been difficult, and perhaps misguided. It is a work that is undeniably rooted in many emotions, thoughts, and images, and holds within it meaning so dense that it is impossible to fully put into words. In the exhibition catalog to The Heart is Not a Metaphor, images of the slideshow are dispersed between texts on Gober’s personal history and sculptures, haunting the book’s pages the way that they haunt Gober’s works. As a whole, Slides of a Changing Painting evokes a myriad of questions and desires, asking me to reexamine and re-confer with myself and my environment, while denying any answers or solutions.