Hänsel and Gretel learnt pretty quickly that the gingerbread house was not what it purported to be.
Similarly the golden walls of the Haunted House, glistening in the Milanese sun, lure visitors away from the greyness of the industrial surroundings to witness an equally unexpected childhood trauma.
The building, a renovated former distillery within the complex of the Prada Foundation, houses a permanent exhibition of Robert Gober plus two works of Louise Bourgeois.
Admission is limited to a small number of people at any given time.
On the first floor “Cell – Clothes” (Louise Bourgeois, 1996) visually and emotionally strikes an immediate and uncanny resemblance to the stage set for ’I Know all the Secrets in My World’ by Natalie Ibu (seen at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester). They both reflect on childhood trauma and family break up, albeit of a different kind. Hung or strewn about the life-size room or “cell”, the clothes are an eerie reminder of loved ones departed without warning, of people anguished, bereft or literally disarrayed. During the 1990s, when Louise Bourgeois created this series of “environments”, she spoke extensively about her traumatic childhood and her anger towards her abusive father, who took Louise’s governess as his mistress. When do memories stop providing a nice reminder of the past and start denying a future, barring anyone from moving on?
Another floor up and “Untitled” (2014-2015) by Robert Gober delves into the depths of the vulnerability of children in the care of parents.
Childhood, religion and (homo)sexuality are themes heavily present in his work.
Possibly under too much pressure, the splintered crib takes the sinister look of a wooden cage, a prison difficult to escape. Taking the form of green apples labelled as being 4000kg, the religious upbringing is bearing down on a malleable young mind – the beeswax. The patterned wallpaper is a repetition of images of the artist’s arms and legs chained by a ribbon. This is not a happy nursery. It’s telling the story of broken children, at times loved, yet unequivocally damaged by the beliefs and constraints imposed by their parents.
“Untitled” (2009-2010) by Robert Gober is in the first room on the top floor. The hyper-realistic work is typical of the meticulous attention to details of the artist. His own hairs are embedded in the wax. The foot is clad in a white sandal and cotton sock. The unsettling sight of a disembodied leg is as disturbing as the thought of what might have happened to the rest of the child.
Whilst there is a clear reference to the heavy burdens children are subjected to, we are also reminded that, in stark contrast to the lithe appearance, they are also capable of incredible strength.
The installation in the second and final room shows a red heart trapped inside a stormwater drain, but by the time you get there, it is not just your heart, but also your mind sinking into the gutter.