Photography by Julien Roubinet
JORDAN WOLFSON (FEMALE FIGURE), 2014, INSTALLED IN JORDAN WOLFSON, DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK, ©JORDAN WOLFSON, PHOTO BY JONATHAN SMITH, COURTESY THE ARTIST, DAVID ZWIRNER, AND SADIE COLES HQ LONDON
Wolfson's 2014 animatronic installation (Female figure) at David Zwirner was an instant sensation on social media.
In a time of mass shootings, suicides streamed on Facebook Live, and the President of the United States regularly tweeting about militarizing the border, it can be hard to imagine that a violent artwork can be shocking beyond words. It's just an artwork, right?
Somehow, however, Jordan Wolfson manages to create work that achieves such a reaction: shocking beyond words. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, he debuted Real Violence, a virtual reality simulation that showed him beating a young man in jeans and a red hoodie with a baseball bat into a bloody pulp—and while the man is a life-sized doll rather than human, the difference seems moot when you're watching the video. The sound of the bat thwacking the victim reverberates in the memory. The first and only time I experienced it, I didn't last for the video's whole two minutes and twenty-five seconds. Instead, I tore my virtual reality headset off as soon as the fake blood started gushing from the victim's head. Around me, other viewers stood in a daze. "Holy shit," someone finally said.
It was the first time in a while that I had been so stirred up by a work of art that I felt more alive. I appreciated that. Other critics felt differently. "I can report that the Jordan Wolfson VR piece in the Whitney Biennial is the most disturbing, horrifying artwork I have ever seen," wrote Andrew Russeth, the executive editor of ARTnews, in a tweet.
Wolfson is known for creating artwork that challenges, and some would even say taunts, the viewer. His work (Female figure), which first debuted at David Zwirner Gallery in 2014 and was on view at Los Angeles' The Broad earlier this year, is an animated blonde sex-bot wearing a witch's mask, smeared with dirt, who snakes and gyrates like she's masturbating or fiending for a hit of dope—or both. She gazes directly into the viewer's eyes and intones, in a high-pitched male voice, commands, like "Say touch is love." The name of the work alone is provocation, especially in the #MeToo era: Is this what women are to a male artist? Or is Wolfson just pushing buttons for the sake of defying what he calls the art world's relative conservatism?
In an age in which artists are expected to take a stand on social and political issues—perhaps even more so than they're expected to make work that is aesthetically pleasing—Wolfson routinely makes headlines for assaulting his audiences with heavy, important themes, and then refusing to discuss them. "I basically exist," he explained to me. "I just look outward, and I'm open to stuff. I try to remain nonjudgmental."
JORDAN WOLFSON, COLORED SCULPTURE, 2016, ©JORDAN WOLFSON, COURTESY THE ARTIST, DAVID ZWIRNER, AND SADIE COLES HQ LONDON
Themes of violence and sexuality are common tropes throughout Wolfson's work, as in his animated installation Colored Sculpture.
Born in 1980 and educated at Rhode Island School of Design alongside contemporaries such as Ryan Trecartin and Dan Colen, Wolfson is notoriously reticent to discuss his influences. Over the phone from L.A., where he called me while driving the car—a Tesla, according to a recent interview in the publication 032c—he told me that asking him why he creates such violent work is like "asking a professional basketball player what his mind looks like."
But I wasn't asking him what his mind actually looked like, I was asking where his artwork originated. Allowing Wolfson to talk without interruption eventually led to more clarity.
"I made Real Violence because I had a frightened reaction to violence," he said. "I was interested in that frightened reaction." He then went on to say that reading for autobiography in the work—for example, assuming that Wolfson is an inherently violent person, and therefore creates violent work - is as fallacious as assuming that a writer writes about violent crimes because they are psychopathic. And that made sense. No one accuses George R.R. Martin, to name just one particularly well-known example, of being a degenerate prone to extreme violence because he wrote the Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones.
The clue to understanding Wolfson's intention (if intention is even important in understanding an artwork) is a pact he says he made with himself. At the beginning of his career, he recalls, he was self-conscious, overly concerned with what others thought. "I was afraid they would think the artwork was my actual moral position," he said of his audience. At some point, he decided: "I'm going to try and have a practice that's uncensored."
In other words, he allowed himself to really "go there": show women as demented sex bots, beat the shit out of a defenseless doll to shock an audience, cause the Twittersphere to flare up with outrage. And it has paid off. For his boldness, Wolfson has been rewarded handsomely. He is represented by David Zwirner, which many would consider the most prestigious gallery in the art world. His works, which reputedly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, regularly appear in the art world's top museums and fairs. Most recently, Colored sculpture—a seven-foot-tall sculpture that resembles Howdy Doody, looks the viewer in the eye while reciting a list of sexual and aggressive things it would like to do to humor her, and then is beaten into the floor by the chains that suspend from the ceiling—was permanently installed at the Tate Modern.
JORDAN WOLFSON, RIVERBOAT SONG, 2017-2018, ©JORDAN WOLFSON, COURTESY THE ARTIST, DAVID ZWIRNER NEW YORK/HONG KONG, AND SADIE COLES HQ LONDON
The multi-part video installation Riverboat Song tackles the themes of race during a time when the subject seems especially frightened.
Wolfson does not confine himself to addressing gender and extreme violence. He touches on all issues. Last year, a multi-part video installment entitled Riverboat song, which stars a cast of characters including a white boy, two horses, an alligator, and three rats, as well as featuring the song "Work" by the controversial white rapper Iggy Azalea, was exhibited at Zwirner; a similar show appeared at Sadie Coles in London in 2017. Despite directly referencing the history of Black musicians entertaining white guests in the Jim Crow South, in the literature on the show, Wolfson characteristically does not mention race at all.
For all of his bravado, Wolfson can be touchingly insecure. "Was that arrogant of me to say?" he asked at the end of our conversation after he had explained how closely he works with the engineers and technicians who create his work, which, it must be said, is at the forefront of artificial intelligence and virtual reality technology. (Wolfson's sculptures are far more complex than the dinky little dog robot struggling to open a door in a viral video posted by Boston Dynamics.)
It's tough to tell if Wolfson's insecurity is real or if he's just being shrewd, trying to ingratiate himself to me because he knows I'm writing a profile on him. The same can be said of his artwork. Yes, it embodies Barthes's famous punctum, the ability to break through the blah of everyday life, but does it do so to challenge the way we see the world? Or does Wolfson know that the current best way to make a buck is to maximize shock value for the sake of dominating conversation, à la President Trump? The cynic in me suspects the latter, but Wolfson, for what it's worth, doesn't seem to care either way.