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Please Don't Touch the Plunger


Smack in the middle of the Modern and Contemporary Galleries is what appears to be one of those essential but common household tools you can pick up at Lowe's for $2.99.

But it is not. It is sculpture. The piece, "Untitled," by acclaimed New York sculptor Robert Gober, is among the latest of the galleries' on-loan installations. And already there is buzz about its oddity. Some wonder whether the museum will purchase it.

"It's one example of the kind of work we'd like to acquire," says John Ravenal, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art. "It's a very tough, challenging piece. There's a certain passion to it and yet it's reserved, enigmatic. You can tell there's something going on but you don't know what."

To be sure, it is no ordinary plunger. Gober, 49, crafted the Styrofoam-looking base out of bronze. The rubber-resembling bell is made from terra cotta and enamel; the handle is carved oak. Last June the carefully perched plunger was prominently displayed at the U.S. Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale, Italy's renowned international exposition of contemporary art.

Gober is hot stuff in the art world: Last year, his "Broom Sink" (a statue of a peculiar wash basin) sold for $464,000. Ravenal says Gober's minimalist plunger relates to the Virginia Museum's collection in myriad ways: It is reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's "Typewriter Eraser, 1976" and Duane Hansen's lifelike construction worker (who, incidentally, seems to be taking a break from the kind of work a plunger endures).

While it instantly conjures Marcel Duchamp's upside-down urinal, Ravenal explains that Gober's hand-made plunger strikingly contrasts with Duchamp's notorious display of already-manufactured items.

"[Gober's] precisely detailed presentations make the common appear strange, a transformation that challenges us to consider the meanings, allusions and metaphors that lie just beneath the surface of our everyday world," reads the wall plaque that accompanies the piece.

Reynolds doesn't bother to read the plaque. She also declines to comment on the object. Smiling courteously, she seems to have sized up the plunger in two minutes. At some point, she observes, the question of money will come up. But noon on a Tuesday clearly isn't the time. — B.W.

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