ART / Insulated from the shock of reason: Andrew Graham-Dixon on some masterpieces of English outrage

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The Independent Culture
It is hard to say which is more surreal, Robert Gober's new exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery or the way it has been received. The Metropolitan Police reviewed it before anyone else and decided that Gober's Male and Female Genitalia Wallpaper, which currently lines the walls of two of the Serpentine's four galleries, constituted a threat to public morality. The windows were accordingly screened off from the gaze of potentially shockable passers-by, and signs warning that some people may find the contents of the exhibition offensive were placed at the entrance to the show.

This has (naturally) had the effect of guaranteeing the attendance of large numbers of people who would never normally dream of visiting an exhibition of modern art. It has also been largely responsible for giving a new lease of life to a form of journalism previously believed extinct: the tabloid newspaper art review.

This literary genre has never really been the same since the golden days of British press philistinism, the early 1970s, when the Sun launched its memorable campaign against the Tate's acquisition of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII, alias 'The Bricks'. But Gober's show has revived this endangered species of writing. Two classic examples have been published in the last fortnight, each demonstrating a complete mastery of the requirements of the genre: moral outrage, dismissive humour and an affecting nostalgia for the days when art was a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.

Michael O'Flaherty, writing in the Daily Express, made telling use of what has always been one of the dominant conventions of tabloid art criticism, known in the trade as the Nudge-Nudge Wink-Wink Pun. 'It's not the sort of wallpaper any normal person would want in their bedroom . . . however well hung,' was his summary of Gober's Male and Female Genitalia Wallpaper. But although O'Flaherty sounded suitably disgusted by it all, he was considerably outdone in the outrage department by Paul Johnson of the Daily Mail, who was spurred by Gober's exhibition to write a resounding neo-Ruskinian essay on art and corruption, a moving pastoral lament for an age of aesthetic innocence and one of the strangest art reviews written in this country for several years.

'Strolling through Hyde Park,' Johnson admired 'countless daffodils, in a dozen different varieties'; he thrilled to 'white, yellow and purple crocuses in stunning array'; and his heart was warmed by a vision of natural loveliness in which 'the waterfowl preened themselves, the squirrels were busy, children flew kites and young lovers strolled hand-in-hand or lay basking in the sunshine'. But then he turned a corner and his world turned sour. 'Even the Garden of Eden has its serpent and so, as it happens, has our park, in the form of the Serpentine Gallery.' Powerless to withstand the seductive blandishments of the Metropolitan Police warning posted at the door, he entered its dark, subterranean world of sexual filth. He tasted the apple of Modern Art and left Hyde Park a sadder and wiser man.

If only he had been in Paris, where 'the Jeu de Paume displays superb Impressionist paintings in the midst of the Tuileries Gardens' and where those who come to enjoy nature in the city's parks may see it reflected in 'the colour and excitement of true art'. But perhaps it is just as well he was not. It has been several years since anyone has seen Impressionist paintings in the Jeu de Paume, which is now a gallery of contemporary art. In fact, one of the more recent exhibitions there was devoted to the work of . . . Robert Gober.

The fact is that a lot of people take Gober pretty seriously. He is one of the most widely acclaimed American artists of his generation. And he is also (if you believe what you read in another, larger and heavier British newspaper of the right) a genius, the closest thing that we have now to an artist in the mould of, say, Vincent Van Gogh.

Last week, Richard Dorment, one of the more sober critics writing today, informed the readers of the Daily Telegraph that 'like everyone I know who has seen it, I left this exhibition harrowed and shaken. I felt I had come into contact with a mind under so much psychological pressure that it was as close as I had ever come to experiencing madness . . . Gober is the real thing, a real artist. Other exhibitions you can take or you can leave. This is one you will never ever forget'. All of which adds up to some pretty impressive advance publicity. This is clearly one of those exhibitions that you will either love or hate, one of those rare cultural events with the capacity to change your life.

It certainly changed mine. I went to see it a couple of days ago and I left appalled and shocked by the experience. I will never be the same again and my professional self-belief, my sense of vocation as an art critic, has been destroyed. I now know that there must be something terribly wrong with me. I can hardly bear to admit it but I thought the exhibition was . . . well . . . OK. I thought it was pretty good but nothing to write home about. I thought it was quite engaging but I had one or two reservations about it. Take what follows as a confession rather than a review.

Robert Gober is a fairly talented American artist working in an established Surrealist and Dadaist tradition of protest. His art is bizarre but it is also carefully calculated, the vehicle for various forms of political or moral evangelism. Gober's genitally decorated wallpaper may be less gratuitous than its detractors have made out and less poignantly expressive of mental imbalance than its admirers have suggested. It makes a point and you could even say that it has a kind of ethical ambition. Gober's wallpaper is a way of ironically implying that the average domestic interior is a place where sexuality is unseen and undiscussed, and of imagining the opposite of such a repressive place. Gober's wallpaper turns the Serpentine into the fantasy of a domestic space where sex is literally out in the open, where it might seem as thoroughly harmless a subject for conversation as (say) the flowers on a Laura Ashley print.

Gober habitually envisions the all- American home as a place of repressed sexuality and suppressed guilt. Another of his wallpaper designs at the Serpentine features a sleeping white man juxtaposed with the figure of a black man dangling from a noose. Gober himself has described it as a reference to 'America as a country founded on genocide and racial prejudice - the image of a crime that goes on and on and on, repeated in a pattern so that it becomes unnoticeable'. His art campaigns, in its quiet way, against all forms of prejudice and against most forms of discrimination, whether racial or sexual.

Gober is a moderately militant gay artist, and perhaps the most striking work in this show, an empty, white satin wedding dress which stands like a headless figure on the gallery floor, may be taken as a polemical gay image of the institution of marriage: at once empty and threatening, the symbol of heterosexual society's exclusion of those who do not aspire to a heterosexual marital relationship.

But, if anything, the very legibility of Gober's work operates against it: initially odd, much of it turns out to be all too easy to account for, too simply decoded. The strange affair of Robert Gober, the Metropolitan Police, the Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph may just demonstrate what happens to art when people decide to make it Controversial. It doesn't get looked at on its own merits. I'm probably clutching at straws, but it is just possible that the shocking, harrowing, disturbing, obscene and extraordinary truth about Gober's work is that it is quite interesting.

(Photograph omitted)

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