The art of the US-American Jordan Wolfson is provocative. His disturbing virtual reality installations, videos and image collages regularly trigger controversy. Currently, his work is at Lake Constance.
Great art, said the star artist Bruce Nauman in an interview with „Art in America“ in 1988, must strike the viewer to the core. Not through the head, but through the stomach, literally: „Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down.“
Curiously, Bruce Nauman’s violent fantasy of reception is tied to jazz music, to the playing of the blind pianist Lennie Tristano, which knocks you down. In visual art, on the other hand, which picks up the viewer more directly, but not immediately physically, the neck-snapping remains a difficult undertaking.
It is true that artists are now legion who take to the stage with a drum roll and wow effect, because this generates attention, an audience – and box office. However, there is a thin dividing line between fair and honest effort, between mere attention-seeking and artistic concern, between brutal provocation and transparent strategy.
Jordan Wolfson, born in New York in 1980, has made a name for himself in recent years as a great master of art as a neck-snap. The hype surrounding his disturbing work is considerable. But is it about art – or more about cash.
Wolfson opened an extensive solo exhibition at the Bregenz Kunsthaus last Friday. To say it in advance: He is one of those clever, ironically witty artists who know how to use shock and distance, seductive proximity and distance responsibly and skilfully. The encounter with his works is violent, brutal and disturbing. But it is worth it.
A day before the exhibition opening, we’re sitting in the café of the Kunsthaus Bregenz (KUB), he, short dark hair, white T-shirt, jeans. We order apple spritzer and pretzels with mustard. Wolfson seems serene and cool, but calculation and coolness are not his thing. It’s more about getting to the bottom of the dislocations and entanglements of his own existence. Growing up as a secular Jew in New York, Wolfson says, he often had to deal with exclusion and rejection. „Not easy.“
Let’s start with the stage for Wolfson’s performance, the KUB. Architect Peter Zumthor’s building has been standing on Lake Constance for 25 years now – minimalistically bold, a finger pointing beyond our uninspired present. For artists, this stage is a challenge, because the KUB programme requires them to fill four floors, four halls without columns, totalling almost 2000 square metres. Wolfson succeeds without any problems.
The exhibition begins without a bang on the ground floor. Wolfson leaves the centre of the room empty. Only the red grimacing face of „House with Face“, 2017, a display-like collage „Untitled“, 2017, alongside three more inconspicuous works (we’ll come back to this) provide visual attraction on the walls of the high hall. From there, it’s into the black box of the white-carpeted first floor. Here Wolfson presents the monumental video work „Raspberry Poser“, 2012.
Then we go to the second floor, which is dominated by a wall of rotating holographs, „Artists Friends Racists“, 2020, surrounded on the walls by large-format collages. This chorus of images orchestrates the prelude to the final show on the third floor, which either draws us in or repels us: the lifelike go-go girl robot „Female Figure“, 2014, which made Wolfson famous.
I want to know if the success of his go-go machine hasn’t made him too committed to an image and blocked him artistically. Jordan smiles and replies that no, it was lucky, because success also enabled a lot. „I’m not a puppet master. I’m only interested in the technology insofar as it implements my idea as well as possible. I have to leave the mechanics and programming to others anyway.“
Raw and abrupt like naked violence
Let’s return to the beginning, to the ground floor. We come across the visually inconspicuous media display „Real Violence“, 2017, virtual reality glasses and headphones, which are offered for sale on a pedestal. What we do not suspect for the time being: Bruce Nauman’s motto that art should be like a punch in the neck is literally put into practice here.
Once we have put on our glasses and headset, we stand alone on the pavement of a busy New York street. In front of us we see the artist in jeans and a T-shirt with a baseball bat in his hand. He is posing behind a man kneeling on the curb. The artist raises the baseball bat and beats the kneeling man, first on the head, then on the torso, the defenceless victim falls forward, collapses, twitches, bleeds, continues to be maltreated with bat and feet until he dies on the pavement.
Before the end, many will have taken off their VR glasses and the headphones from which sweet Hanukkah music flows. Even those who watched the violent scene to the end will ask themselves what it means. Why we expose ourselves to it, why we and what it concerns us.
The imposition is hardly diminished by the fact that at some point we recognise an animated dummy in the victim. The act of violence remains without context, the motivation of the perpetrator as well as his relationship to the victim are unknown.
Although mediated by the media – albeit in one of the most direct ways, through virtual reality glasses – we are witnesses, accomplices, co-perpetrators of the blatant violent scene.
Why does the artist strike at the neck of his audience, why does he go to the pain threshold of the viewer? Challenge, challenge of the avant-gardist to cross another border? Or challenge, challenge the sensitivities of the recipients, who are given an experience they would have found difficult to have otherwise?
Wolfson is smart enough to give us the violent scene in the VR glasses hyper-reality in which we are isolated and thrown back on ourselves. Do we become fascinated by the violence? Do we identify with the perpetrator, the victim, both?
The question of the artist’s integrity, his moral-political stance or his good intentions – for example in the sense of an Aristotelian catharsis or, say, as a critique of the viral presence of depictions of violence in social media – distances us from the immediate physical experience of the viewer. But it plays a subordinate role in Wolfson’s setting. The only thing under discussion is the work as such, which does not legitimise itself with the artist’s intention. It is raw and abrupt, like naked violence. A blow to the neck.
No moral message
I ask Wolfson about his attitude, his political stance. „Yes, of course my position as an outsider is left-wing, critical.“ But for him, art has nothing to do with unambiguity, with moral messages or even political propaganda. He takes a stand, yes, but in the sense of shifting references, contexts and levels of meaning. This happens anarchically. Wolfson bites into his pretzel.
His works make things visible without giving answers. They are uncomfortable because they trigger deep layers of our lives that lie dormant, repressed, denied. The myth of childhood happiness is just as much a part of it as the abysses of bourgeois gender relations or the false promises of consumer society.
Asked about his self-image as an artist, Wolfson characterises himself as a „mechanic who repairs a machine that has never existed before“. He does not see himself as a sculptor, painter or draughtsman. His medium, the expression in videos, collages, spatial stagings with automated puppets, the formal language of comics, images found on the internet and filmed scenes in which he often appears himself or lends his voice to the figures, result from the often lengthy working process and vary greatly. Even though his signature remains recognisable for the most part.
This is convincing in Wolfson’s work, because although he uses the latest technology and software, he never formally plays it up and makes it the real thing – even if we can marvel at it at first.
This is also the case with „Artists Friends Racists“, 2020. A wall on which 20 rotating hologram displays are mounted in two rows one above the other, their quiet whirring filling the hall on the second floor. The artist uses the latest cry of imaging processes, which already caused open mouths at the „Unlimited“ of Art Basel in mid-June. Each display moves a cross of four axes a good 20 centimetres long, equipped with tiny LED lights that produce razor-sharp images with a maddeningly fast rotation.
The artist thus sets us into a breathtaking storm of images that simply overwhelms our powers of comprehension. In rapid succession, happy blue emojis pop up next to cheeky comic rabbits, faces, photos of police cars, stunts by robots, firemen – and again and again the words Artists, Friends, Racists rain down and shatter like glass.
A critique of unambiguous attributions? The whole work an allegory of the image-obsessed social media present? Possibly. But Wolfson’s standard question of what the artist is trying to tell us only works if we look for the answer within ourselves.
Distance and horror
This also applies to his installation „Female Figure“, 2014. Even eight years after its first presentation, among other things at the special exhibition „14 Rooms“ during Art Basel, it has lost none of its fascination. Back then, she was the insider tip of the fair, access strictly limited. The public was only allowed into a narrow, white room in groups of up to four, at the front of which a lightly dressed, large-breasted, blonde dancer in high white patent boots danced to disco music in front of a mirror.
In fact, you could briefly think you were meeting a real dancer who was fixing you via the mirror. Eerie, because via motion detectors and facial recognition software, she tracked her viewers at every turn. Also uncanny: the woman wore a dark green mask with a long witch-like hooked nose. And her lifelike movements were made possible by a chrome rod that penetrated her stomach through the mirror.
Bregenz is showing „Female Figure“ for the first time in a wide auditorium, not in a cubbyhole, which would make the figure obtrusive, even threatening. However, she deserves the big performance in Bregenz. We can appreciate her here – withdrawn from their gaze and claustrophobic intimacy – from a safe distance. From there, too, she hooks herself vampirically into our memory. For even lascivious beauty needs grace or terror in order to create real binding forces.
And terror also creates and requires a critical measure of distance. After our conversation, Wolfson has a TV interview scheduled. Then he finally wants to take a swim. It’s hot. Lake Constance is calling.
First in an editorially revised German version on Republik.ch, https://www.republik.ch/2022/07/20/der-mechaniker