June 18, 2019
by Larry Luowei Zhang
Robert Gober’s installation Untitled Closet (1989) is a unique work that some visitors may miss upon entering the Grey Art Gallery. In other words, Gober was very successful, in this case, in his stated goal of integrating his art into its surrounding environment.
During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Gober, like many other artists, employed his work to support the aims of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). These artists demonstrated that their work could help to make the voices of the people heard, to fight for a cause that was important to local communities, and that art is not just a commodity, nor is it intended only for pleasure. Untitled Closet was born in this context, revealing a great problem hiding right under people’s noses.
In the queer context, the idea of the closet is closely related to the term “coming out.” After the Stonewall Uprising, “coming out” came to mean emerging from the oppressive closet of secrecy. Gober’s closet itself is queer: it functions as place of storage or haven, yet lacks a door to enclose it for these purposes. His closet’s emptiness heralds the victory of the LGBTQ movement: same-sex desire need no longer be kept secret. But does this stark emptiness lure us to go back in? Perhaps the outside world has mingled together with this space, so there is an ambiguity in regard to identity.
In past installations, Untitled Closet was installed in a striking position, as in an exhibition at the Matthew Marks Gallery and the artist’s solo MoMA show “The Heart Is Not a Metaphor” in 2014. In contrast, “Art after Stonewall” places it near the entrance, next to the title wall. Therefore, visitors tend to see it as a real closet for coat check. This arrangement, however, does not undermine the work’s power; on the contrary, it deepens and strengthens it dramatically. First, the ignorance reflected in our casual viewing echoes the U.S. government’s past silence and misunderstandings over the AIDS epidemic. Today, it is very difficult to believe that the government turned a blind eye to such a major medical and social crisis.
Moreover, this queer but still common closet more or less represents the LGBTQ community, which was long regarded as a marginal group. Although marked with the word “queer,” they are ordinary individuals who live the same everyday lives as all of us. It is discrimination that defines their otherness. In fact, they are our colleagues, friends, partners, and family members. We are all mingled together and hard to distinguish, like water dissolved in water.
Though created in 1989, this ambiguous and easily overlooked work still reflects the current situation faced by the LGBTQ community. Despite superficial harmony, oppression and persecution continue on in many parts of the U.S. and the world. The Stonewall Uprising’s 50-year anniversary reminds us not only of the efforts made by pioneering activists, but also of the ongoing need for us to create a more just and equitable future.
Larry Luowei Zhang is a graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He expects to receive a M.A. in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in May 2020.