Originally published in Flash Art International no. 296 May-June 2014
In a recent interview Jordan Wolfson traced a cycle of works produced since 2009 back to a moment of eye-contact: “It is something that became clear to me in Your Napoleon (2009) […]. For that work, I kept trying to figure out how to cut and paste these mock conversations about string theory and pop culture, and it felt like an ad-lib […]. I didn’t come up with the term formal bridge until I basically asked the actors to just read the script and look directly into my eyes, stare deep into my eyes” [Jordan Wolfson and Aram Moshayedi, “Tell a Poser,” in Ecce Homo / le Poseur, Walther König, Cologne, 2013, p. 92]. If eye contact is both the semblance of a “truthful” connection and in the right hands a mask for falsity, Wolfson has pursued this “formal bridge” into a realm of heightened artifice and discomforting disclosure. His sophisticated animated constructions have achieved an unerring capacity to meld the giddy “anything goes” of computer-generated imagery with the telling fetish of the pop-cultural meme.
In his first solo exhibition for David Zwirner in New York in 2014, comprising a projected film, an installation and a number of digitally printed reliefs, instances of engineered eye contact between an artwork’s protagonist and the viewer anchored the show. The looped film Raspberry Poser (2012) featured a medley of animated forms layered against stock-image backgrounds and tastefully shot locations, set to a soundtrack of Beyoncé and Mazzy Star. Bouncing HIV virus particles and ethereal floating condoms emitting cascades of love hearts roved the streets and luxury lifestyle boutiques of New York’s SoHo. Meanwhile a generic cartoon boy gleefully strangled and self-eviscerated himself, as if to prove his immortal otherworldliness. Intercut with these characters, a series of live-action sequences showed Wolfson dressed as an archetypal punk on a “dérive” through a Parisian park. A close-up shot sees him turn to the camera and hold the prolonged gaze of the lens, an insouciant smile flickering across his face. The camera, of course, mediates the connection between Wolfson and the viewer. But the intentionality and persistence behind “the look” is unnerving. It holds both an arrogant knowingness and something of the contorted power play of a fashion model’s stare into the camera.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, a second striking experience of a returned gaze was altogether uncanny in its technological mediation. The installation (Female Figure) 2014 (2014) was a somewhat logical progression from the sculptural qualities of computer-generated animation and its capacity to impose the muscular specificities of human movement onto the least human of forms. Occupying a secluded room, a life-size animatronic female figure performed a looped sequence of complex movements, accompanied by a montage of music and spoken word. Positioned to look directly into a mirror, the robot was scantily clad and platinum blonde bewigged, somewhere between a Britney Spears stage show persona and the sexualized dysmorphia of a Manga cartoon character. The figure wore a half-face mask, a swamp green, witchy derivation of Commedia dell’Arte’s Pantalone. At several points in the routine its framed eyes turned to meet the gaze of the viewer in the mirror, creating a discomforting moment of collapse as the mechanics of robotics gave way to seemingly sentient recognition.
(Female Figure) 2014 is an almost absurdist endgame for discourse around the theatrics of the sculptural object and the tendency towards stagecraft within the contemporary art exhibition. While the robot’s routine was scripted, programmed and seamlessly looped — not unlike Raspberry Poser playing nearby — the physical nature of the encounter was heightened through the restriction to one or two people entering the room at any time. This conceit, a gesture towards an individualized performance, allowed for the singular experience of being “seen” by “her,” a phenomenon made possible by the use of advanced facial recognition and motion-sensing technology. The robot is the distant figure in the park in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943). Thought of as a puppet, its relation to the objects around it is purely additive; it creates no new relations in the world of the viewer. In its locking of sight-lines, however, the viewer is momentarily yet disconcertingly aware of becoming an object in the eyes of the automaton.
The moment of disintegration that the gaze engenders, and the formal constructs that enable this experience, serve as a site where multiple layers of content exist as dense montage. In parallel with the uncanny ocular capability of the robot, its approximation of human motor function operates as an overt display of virtuosity. With white-stilettoed boots rooted to the floor and its torso pinioned to the mirrored wall it faces, the figure is restricted to a vertical axis of movement. Despite these limitations, it executes an array of hip, arm, hand and head gestures, performing an accomplished dance routine to abruptly intercut sections of pop music and spoken text. The dexterity of the technology is most apparent in hand and finger movements that replicate the networked semaphore of the viral dance move — from the “shaka” to the “hitchhiker.” As curator Linda Norden has highlighted in her writing on Wolfson’s animated characters, this virtuosity casts the robot less as a proficient simulacra than a “dimensional dummy — a kind of test vehicle — subject to the extreme force not of wind or speed, but of the kaleidoscopic onslaught of too much information or too many options” [Linda Norden, “Only The Lonely,” ibid, p. 52]. The figure’s shoulder and elbow joints are left uncovered as the bare mechanics of metal gears and grease visibly work to achieve the complex cycle of gesticulations — a transparency that points to the carefully wrought construct of both physical form and coded caricature.
The “caricature” is that of the contemporary apex of objectified public figure, the female pop star. While the thigh-high boots, tight-fitting bodice and blonde wig are straight out of the handbook of the post-Madonna, post-Mouseketeers pop spectacle, Wolfson’s choice of soundtrack — that pitches from adrenaline-pumped Lady Gaga to the elegiac opening lines of Sharon Robinson and Leonard Cohen’s Boogie Street (2001) — provides a layered subtext. Most telling is a section of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines (2013) slowed down to a point where Thicke’s voice becomes a lascivious drawl. The song, and its accompanying video, has achieved notoriety for its unabashed representation of women as objects of sexual gratification, and for its thinly veiled references to sexual violence. As a cause célèbre for both liberal and conservative media, which hit its peak of frothy mania in summer 2013 in tandem with Miley Cyrus’s “exploitation” in the video for Wrecking Ball (2013), the song and its attendant controversy represents less a rallying point for a counter-articulation of feminist subjectivity than a particularly rabid cultural meme. It encapsulates a terrain in which the media’s questioning of the portrayal of women in the public sphere is itself a reproduction of behaviors, styles and circulating capital. Thicke states: “Sometimes the lyrics can get misconstrued when you’re just trying to put people on the dance floor and have a good time.” The recurring use of anthemic club-pop in Wolfson’s cut-up soundtrack imposes a perfunctory affective rhythm that he has described as “the frequency of love.” This hazy euphoria stands in direct relation to viral culture’s nihilistic distortions of sexuality and identity, and to “misconstrual” as the contested public ground of subjectivity and interpretation.
On top of the virtuosity of the figure as “sculptural” construct, and its discomforting performance of cultural fetish, Wolfson overlays a third shift in scale. In sections of spoken word that the robot lip-syncs, the artist’s own voice resounds around the room. The projection of voice onto the constructed shell of an animated figure is present also in Raspberry Poser and Wolfson’s previous film, Animation, masks (2011). The boy in Raspberry Poser and a stereotyped Jew in Animation, masks become hosts for both the voice of the artist and a female conversant, a disjunction that highlights the animation as a mediating vessel. Reinforcing this further, the dialogue spoken is often phrased for the benefit of the viewer as a third party, referred to as “them” — a listener privy to intimate exchanges of both verbal foreplay and neurotic self-analysis. In (Female Figure) 2014 Wolfson’s solo voice disposes of a conversant, instead verbalizing a semi-poetic and at times whispered internal monologue that veers between bravado, anxiety, anger and pillow talk. Passages such as “I’m getting old, I’m getting fat and I don’t believe in God” and “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house” portray a subjectivity defined by therapy, a persona that hovers between Wolfson himself, a Woody Allen-esque caricature, and a fluid everyman. The underlying preoccupation with age and accumulating pyscho-sexual anxiety forms a recurring motif alongside the persistent address of sexual prowess, sexuality and class within previous works.
In Raspberry Poser, the fluid computer-animated sequences of HIV particles, wafting condoms and gray blood cells grouping into various icons, from an anarchy symbol to the activist group ACT UP’s triangle emblem, are edited into a Fantasia-like choreography. This crude symbology of the AIDS epidemic is projected onto footage of SoHo streets once home to a cultural community devastated by the disease. The background images show the rough textures of the building exteriors and cobbled streets. In one shot a banner marking the location of the arts organization I work for, Artists Space, is visible, its triangle logo echoing its entwined history with AIDS activism and the political spasms of the culture wars in the late 1980s. Further images showing the smooth interiors of luxury lifestyle stores reflect the extent to which the area has changed in thirty years. For Wolfson though, these relations are only perceptible as texture — what he has described as the indifferent “mechanics” of the HIV virus, against the “surreal dream state” of the contrived environments of contemporary SoHo.
In many regards, Jordan Wolfson’s work embodies the internalized contradictions of a generation whose teenage years spanned the twin poles of a burgeoning hyper-sexualized cultural economy and the media-stoked specter of sexually transmitted disease. In conjuring up a social imaginary around HIV and AIDS activism, Raspberry Poser echoes a young adult asking: “What does it mean about me?” — what writer Sarah Schulman has described as a “suburban narcissism in which one is able to ‘identify’ in order to internalize value”[Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, University of California Press, Oakland CA, 2012, p. 7]. The “place of distortion” Wolfson moves toward is undoubtedly agonistic, as it rests on a neurotic self-identification that appropriates positions of sexuality, gender, race and class — positions that themselves are present in the work only through inflated, vulgarized stereotypes. “Do you think I’m homosexual? Do you think I’m rich? Will you tell them what it’s like to be with me?” The artist’s needy voice is caught within the performance of a hyperbolized role, a meta-dialogue with the viewer that challenges their presumptions of identity and the “honest” disclosure of inner angst. While Wolfson is evidently not himself the loose-skinned, tired man of the poetic monologue in (Female Figure) 2014, the psycho-sexual inner world of the creator of the Bellmer-esque robot-as-sex-object looms large as an involuntary fiction.
It could be argued that across the spectrum of partial personas in Wolfson’s work, from the cartoon kid to the aging man appealing to his mum, the faux-punk to the grinning Shylock, the ever-present figure is that of the “man-child.” The characterization is familiar from mainstream media’s articulation of a generational crisis in masculinity. From Judd Apatow rom-coms to dating advice columns, the infantilized adult male, ill at ease with women and the challenges of performing modern life, has become a very contemporary caricature. In a 2013 essay for The New Inquiry, writers Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern identified the prevalence of an equivalent “type” within “the bourgeois-left spheres of cultural production” as a perpetuator of “forms of crypto- and not-so-crypto misogyny” [Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern, “Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child,” The New Inquiry, July 9, 2013].
Weigel and Ahern describe their figure of the man-child as adopting rhetorical strategies of indecision and knowingness, and appealing to his identity “to control the contexts in which [he is] understood.” Such a depiction resonates with Wolfson’s impulse towards the vulgarized stereotype and the performing of subject positions. The firewall for the artist-as-provocateur is that “the meaning of his statement inheres in his intentions, not in the effects of his language.” But Wolfson seeks to move beyond this position of inertia, implicating a figure in his work congruent with the man-child, that of the “poser.” As his faux-punk affects minor acts of non-conformist public display, so the artist has stated regarding Raspberry Poser that “the whole work is a poser, and a poser is a distortion because you’re taking something that is and making it something that it isn’t. By doing that you see it clearly for what it truly is without subjectification.”
The idea of functioning “without subjectification” suggests the desire to suspend the calculating self toward a state of indifference. It resonates with Wolfson’s foregrounding of the “formal bridge” as a means to move artwork and viewer beyond a self-conscious questioning of content and positioning within discourses. There is a clear sense in which the artist’s work from 2009 onward has rejected a reliance on acquired methods and signifiers of artistic validity and rectitude. The complex cycle of works that culminates in the twin gazes of the female automaton and the languid punk instead offers witness to an unadorned self-image at odds with the governing techniques of the self-enterprising individual. Wolfson’s adoption of animation and animatronics locates this externalization within structural ambivalence; the ability to warp, inflate, distort and fantasize offers a fitting testimony to the splitting of contemporary subjecthood.