““Even the Dumbest Dream Can Astound Us with its Art”” — James Hillman
The exhibition spanning 23 years of Robert Gober’s work is not a retrospective, but an anamnesis—a word that means “to recall to mind, or memory.” In a medical context the anamnesis is a gathering of information that forms a complete case history. In the practice of archetypal psychology, it also means a gathering of significant images, the assembling of an individual psyche’s archival material that reveals its own story.
When Gober “needs to see something,” he says he draws. When the rest of us need to see something, we dream. Approaching Gober’s work by drawing out the relationship between looking at a piece of art and looking at a dream gives us a way to stand, puzzled, in the presence of images that have something to reveal.
The gray black of the open door the size of my palm pulls our focus into the shadow below the horizon line. Like a sudden descent into the unconscious, (really sudden, there are no visible stairs) our vision falls into the place where “the unknown within you” dwells. Over the door to just such a place, Dante once inscribed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here...”
Dreams take us on a downward trajectory away from the happy optimism of growth psychology, which is to say that it is knowledge we seek, not hope or betterment. The aim of the dream is to draw us into depth, richness, and complexity. Into the place where Night broods. Gober is a brooding artist who nurses images that haunt him.
To look at this cellar image as if it were a dream, I might proceed along three tracks: personal, archetypal, imaginal. First admitting whatever comes up, letting it float through awareness. That old-fashioned storm door reminds me of farms, root cellar, the Wizard of Oz, storm shelter, bomb shelter, secret niches, sexual disclosures, genital & anal openings, treasure, clubhouses, childhood games.
As for archetypal associations, the artist welcomes us to the mysteries of the dark house. The basement is the first level of drain-off from the structure above, a place of storage and also a place of memory. Initiation practices begin with a first step down into the dark, wearing a veil to ensure blindness of a particular kind. When an initiate goes through the katabasis, or “the wandering around at the base of things,” it is necessary to sever ties with the daylight world. Gober says his basement says: “Don’t forget this” which is the aim of initiation, and an aim of art—to aid the deep memory and make certain visionary experiences indelible.
“An innate urge to go below appearances... leads to the world interior to what is given.”
To attend the image, ask what it is. Fledgling dreamworkers are given the advice to “tell an alien” what they are seeing. A dark hole at the upper left of a vast white field. Doors at an angle to an imagined dwelling place connecting to the ground. The door boards appear to lift and lower. These are lifted open. Like a window into and out of the underworld, the foundation of the domus opens out, to the whole wide (white, blank, unmarked, innocent?) world.
Gober has a way of juxtaposing a high symbol with a low one, a deflated one with an inflated one. As above, so below. He wants you to see at least two sides of everything. In Gober’s practice, art is an antidote to fundamentalism.
One of the greatest mysteries of sex and passage to capture the imagination of the Western world shows up in this gallery: belonging to the god Dionysus, the man-womanly one whose transformative sap surges through the bodies of his followers as if through the trunk of a pine tree.
In a red-walled ritual chamber in Pompeii you can still see an image of the basket. An everyday woven wicker piece called the liknon. It was elevated to sacred purpose as a container for carrying the conduit-phallus of the god in similar oversized proportion.
I asked Gober specifically about it: “Did he have the Dionysian liknon and herm shelved in his image-repertoire?”—No, but (he agreed) this is the beauty of the archetypal, it already belongs to all of us.
Every piece of art has as many sources as a dream—multiple sources reaching into the dark as Freud said the mushroom’s mycelia stretch their roots into the vast storehouse of the soul.
“Mythology is the psychology of the ancient world. Just as psychology is a mythology of modernity.”
Even the dumbest art (to rephrase Hillman) can astound us with its dream.
“Even the dumbest dream can astound us with its art, the range of its reference, the play of its fancy, the selection of its detail. If we follow our own principle of likeness, then our response to the dream must go beyond the natural appreciation of dreaming it onwards. We shall as well have to respond with critical, imaginative appreciation, with a work that resembles its work. ”
This text is an excerpt from a Walker Art Center Gallery Talk.
Robert Gober: Sculpture + Drawing, essays by Richard Flood, Gary Garrels, Ann Temkin. Catalog of an exhibition held at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minn., February 14 – May 9, 1999 and three other venues through Sept. 4, 2000.
James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld