February 2024

Arts & Letters

Call to arms: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Body Sculpture’

By Quentin Sprague

Jordan Wolfson, ‘Body Sculpture’ (detail), 2023, National Gallery of Australia Kamberri/Canberra, purchased 2019. © Jordan Wolfson. Courtesy Gagosian, Sadie Coles HQ, and David Zwirner. Photograph by David Sims.

The NGA’s newest acquisition, a controversial American artist’s animatronic steel cube, fuses abstraction with classical figure sculpture

In 2003, while a student at New York’s Rhode Island School of Design, the artist Jordan Wolfson encountered a classical Buddhist sculpture in the campus museum. It was a simple thing, but something about it lodged deep in his consciousness and stayed there. He remembers it well: how he would visit the museum, and spend time simply looking at the unassuming figure, basking in its palpable energy. At times it appeared as if it might overwhelm him. “It was like I would hallucinate that it would come and it would, like, smash me,” he tells me. “It was a crazy feeling. It carried this kind of intense frequency of consciousness.”

Wolfson, 43, has just premiered his newest work – a major acquisition for the National Gallery of Australia titled Body Sculpture – to a gaggle of press, gallery staff and board members, and has retreated to the relatively quiet surrounds of the gallery’s members’ lounge. The view before him takes in the tall gums of the sculpture garden and the lake beyond. He is tired. It has, after all, been more than five years since he and his dealer first caught the ear of the NGA’s director, a then newly installed Nick Mitzevich, in New York, and convinced him of the significance of… what, exactly? An animatronic cube with articulated arms? A piece of figurative techno-abstraction? A destination work by a new-generation artist who had generated a rare mix of international acclaim and condemnation? Back then the final formation of Body Sculpture, initially known as Cube, was in flux, and anything seemed possible. But Mitzevich was nonetheless enthralled; he purchased the work on spec for US$4.5 million.

Mitzevich was already a fan, having experienced Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014) at The Broad museum in Los Angeles, which had acquired the work soon after it was first exhibited at David Zwirner gallery. That work – not quite Wolfson’s most controversial (that title likely goes to his virtual reality video work, Real Violence, from 2017, in which a viewer witnesses the artist graphically beat a simulated figure to death with a baseball bat) – is, along with the not unrelated Colored Sculpture (2016), one of the cornerstones upon which his significant international reputation rests. It consists of what can only be described as a hyper-sexualised life-sized female robot in a hideous witch mask. Dressed in a negligee and facing a full-length mirror, she stands with rear thrust towards the viewer, gyrating softly. Her stunningly realistic synthetic eyes are fitted with facial recognition software, and programmed to seek out and meet the approaching viewer’s gaze while she speaks incantatory-sounding statements, in Wolfson’s own affectless tones – “My mother is dead; My father is dead; I’m gay; I’d like to be a poet; This is my home.” When the pulse of Lady Gaga’s 2013 song “Applause” kicks in (opening lyric: I stand here waiting for you to bang the gong / To crash the critic saying, “Is it right or is it wrong?”), her gyrations become a choreographed dance accompanied not only by the blasting soundtrack, but by the whirring mechanics of her limbs. On paper, it confounds, but by all reports it went off in the US art world like an incendiary device. Its initial showing prompted viewers to queue around the block, and it was included in several “best artworks of the year” lists, but the way in which it pushed into outright misogyny as an apparently formal strategy ensured that it just as readily gathered detractors.

Mitzevich, whom I sit down with briefly after my conversation with Wolfson, has been known to speak of collection-building in carefully objective terms, going as far as to claim it as a “science”, but he describes his response to Female Figure far more subjectively. He explains to me that he was drawn to the “duality” of it – to the simultaneous attraction and repulsion it sparked in him – and that the resulting unease stayed with him. This is why he wanted a major Wolfson piece in the collection, yet when the acquisition of Body Sculpture was announced in 2019, Wolfson’s reputation had recently taken some hits, including a quietly damning long-form profile in The New Yorker. Perhaps sensing blood in the water, a number of Australian critics piled on. The Sydney Morning Herald’s John McDonald, for instance, labelled Wolfson “an irritant on the body of art”, while art academic Adam Geczy told Artist Profile magazine that Wolfson’s work was “an empty vessel, a husk”. The stage, it seemed, was set for the kind of art world controversy only rarely seen on Australian shores. But then Covid hit, and where one might otherwise have expected the debate to deepen, everything pretty much fell silent. For his part, Wolfson retreated to his Los Angeles studio with a coterie of collaborators – key among them the roboticist and celebrated Hollywood practical effects mainstay Mark Setrakian – and set to work.

If Female Figure had attempted to manifest a toxic male gaze, and Colored Sculpture – a similarly dark and unsettling sculpture now in the collection of London’s Tate Modern – was intended in part to clumsily poke at the raw wound of American racism, the work that became Body Sculpture sought a less disruptive register. That alone is a risk for an artist dubbed – rightly or wrongly – an enfant terrible. Was Wolfson retreating from his critics by giving them nothing outright provocative or controversial upon which to hang their hats? Perhaps he was ageing out of provocation altogether? Or was the work itself simply dictating a new direction, one that, in keeping with his formative experience before the Buddha figure in the Rhode Island museum, attempted to embody the charged physical encounter that sculpture can, in its best forms, engender?

The Buddha figure is only one example among a number that Wolfson offers to illustrate the “intense frequency of consciousness” that he seeks to manifest in Body Sculpture. Like so many artists of his ilk, he is a true art history flaneur, revelling in the ability of contemporary art to make everything accessible all at once, regardless of – or more accurately, because of – the material, formal or conceptual transgressions such access necessarily entails.

The 1992 work, Heidi, a joyfully perverse and knowingly kitsch video by the foundational grunge-era American artists Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, was just as formative. “When I was 19, I saw that at the New Museum, and it completely changed me in a single moment,” Wolfson tells me. So too were encounters with Constantin Brâncuși’s perfect expression of unfettered form, Bird in Space (1923), the serial minimalist boxes of Donald Judd, or even the most famous sculpture of them all, Michelangelo’s David. It’s the latter two that resonate most obviously in Body Sculpture. The work’s “body”, such as it is, consists of a Judd-like brushed-steel box, from which emerge two beautifully articulated robotic arms (clearly marquee examples of Setrakian’s craft). In this way, classical figure sculpture and minimal abstraction are bluntly thrust together, an act that can’t help but shatter the tenets of each. I won’t hazard to speak for Michelangelo, but, as Wolfson readily acknowledges to me, Donald Judd – a purist in the true sense of the word – would hate it.

Body Sculpture is a hybrid work in other ways too. I experienced it among the notebook-wielding press pack, and when Wolfson and I speak afterwards, my feelings for it are yet to settle with any clarity. This is in large part due to the way in which the sculpture seemed to negate the viewer’s bodily encounter with it even as, per Wolfson’s claim, it sought to embody exactly this. The audience stands at a remove before the metal box-body, which hangs suspended over a stage by a chain grasped by the kind of huge mechanical arm built to labour in car factories. This is attached to an imposing gantry, which enables it to travel back and forth. The whole thing has been programmed to perform a set piece of choreography over 30 minutes: a series of three “climaxes” (to borrow Wolfson’s phrasing), intended to build and release tension. Much of the performance resides in the robotic hands and arms. They make gestures both simple and complex: they touch themselves in the gentlest of fashion, before banging their body and slapping the ground. The whole thing is bluntly mechanical but nonetheless evokes the human; it is part sculpture and part performance; its clear nod to the history of minimalist sculpture is immediately struck down by its maximalist ambition. It also swings between contrasting registers: quiet and loud, soft and hard. At one moment the movements are delicate, accompanied only by the whirring sound of its mechanics, and in the next brutal and bombastic. But somehow the violent resolution it seems to build towards never quite arrives. At the end, the cube is returned to the centre of the stage, where it rests its hands softly on the ground, the weight of it sinking slowly downward as if it has either been mortally drained by its exertions, or is just very, very sad.

Wolfson is reticent to pin down the work’s meaning beyond attesting to the fact that if much of his work to date has reached outward into the world, this work reaches inward towards the body itself. He chooses his words carefully. “I like to describe myself as a kind of witness,” he says. “In a lot of my other works I was more topically witnessing socially related or politically related subjects. And with Body Sculpture, I wanted to witness physicality and make a work for physicality.”

What this means is that core aspects of his previous works are entirely absent in Body Sculpture. Gone are the purposefully jarring pop-culture references that acted so lasciviously to layer on potential meaning and counter-meaning. Gone too is much of the uneasiness that characterised his previous figure works in particular: their capacity to implicate the audience in their faintly and not-so-faintly curdled worlds (which were, of course, cartoon versions of our own). Colored Sculpture – which consists of an oversized articulated metal figure of a malevolent cartoon boy that is smashed, dragged and dangled to a soundtrack that includes snippets of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” – arguably provides Body Sculpture its most obvious precedent. Its figure too is chained and gantry-borne; it too undergoes mechanical assault. But Body Sculpture, by contrast, lacks a face and eyes. I’ve not seen either Colored Sculpture or Female Figure in person, but there is an avalanche of detailed video documentation available online. Although each is elaborately constructed, it is arguably the face, and especially the eyes, that are key. The eyes flicker with something near to human intelligence, even emotion. As viewers, we all seek out the “face” of the thing before us: the access point by which we might commune. It’s this capacity to seemingly return the viewer’s gaze that makes Wolfson’s two earlier works feel so vital: they lodge in one’s consciousness like vengeful memes and stay there, welcome or not.

Without this, the emotional aspect of Body Sculpture is less melodramatically heightened, and therefore less outwardly provocative. But this is part of the point. Wolfson wants his audience to know that not only was he aware of this, but that he embraced it. He also wants us to know that it wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the accompanying catalogue, he explains as much in an isolated quote printed in the centre of an otherwise blank page: “I knew this sculpture couldn’t have eyes. I’d just be repeating myself. But part of me was afraid and I scrambled. I tried all sorts of gimmicks to create the spectacle of being seen, but none of them worked.” In the end, he continues, he had to trust his central idea that if the work was to pare itself back to the bodily encounter, it had to remain far more abstract.

So it is that the Body Sculpture we meet takes its own impervious form. Its “performance” for the most part unfurls beyond the stage’s implied proscenium arch, a symbol that is only underscored by the actual chain that tethers the body in place. It tries to engage us in the manner of Wolfson’s earlier sculptures. But only briefly, about halfway through, does it succeed. One after the other the arms extend towards the audience, the jointed hands beckoning with beautiful fluidity. At this moment something flickers into life: it seems to recognise the viewer before it.

The basis of Wolfson’s work lies in postmodernism, the great conceptual unthreading in art history – not to mention culture more generally – that, in the 1980s, established the ground upon which so much contemporary art takes root. The artistic forebears that he acknowledges are from this perspective both obvious and not. Among them is Jeff Koons, that master craftsman of calculated affect, who so famously turned Andy Warhol’s marriage of art and commerce up to 11. But for those readers who might associate Koons with his drastically anodyne recent sculptures, such as his stainless-steel mirror-polished Venus (2016–20), in the collection of the NGV, think again. For Wolfson, as with many American artists of his generation, it is the more anarchic early Koons that matters the most. The Koons, that is, for whom American culture was all acidic surface and half-poisoned joy. Then there are figures such as the mononymous Sturtevant – a pivotal and, until recent decades, overlooked artist, whose careful copies of her canonical contemporaries presaged the way that the internet would eventually devalue all images – or Bruce Nauman, who took the material clarity of minimalism and, via his performances, passed it through the body’s unpredictable lens. The names of other luminaries also resonate, among them Kara Walker, Rosemarie Trockel, David Hammons and Félix González-Torres. The main sub-theme is not only that they are for the most part American, but that their work more often than not interrogates that country’s complex, and often very dark, soul.

But whereas other artists – Hammons and González-Torres, for instance – achieve a certain blinding iconic clarity in their work, Wolfson often finds himself coming up with something wholly different. He doesn’t do it consciously; indeed, he claims not to work strategically at all. He argues that it simply comes down to the way that different artists practise. “Ever since I was a young person making art, the work has always come out strange and dark,” he says. “And I can’t resist that. If I resisted that, I wouldn’t be who I am.”

In this, Body Sculpture proves to be uniquely ambitious and singular. It’s the kind of work that, in the context of the national collection, will beguile and agitate in equal measure. And although it came freighted with controversy, it ultimately takes us somewhere else entirely. I was likely not alone in feeling mildly disappointed that Wolfson hadn’t somehow broken the internet, or otherwise caused a furore. But the real shock of the work is how ruminative it is. Or, put another way, how shock is not its quickening medium. Wolfson and his collaborators have constructed a provisional body without blood, one that comes part way to meet its audience but then hits a wall that marks the limits of its very machinery, no matter how perfectly realised that machinery might be. It may be for exactly this reason that – in a way entirely different to Wolfson’s early works – it too manages to lodge in the viewer’s consciousness.

It’s about us humans, Wolfson tells me. “We are an imperfect animal: we have an imperfect history; we have an imperfect future. And I’m just trying to see that, and I’m trying to see that sometimes in complicated, asymmetrical ways. And I just feel that’s what the kind of art I’m interested in does, and I just feel that that’s the kind of art I’m interested in making.”

Hearing this, it’s hard not to picture the cube, dangling from its heavy-duty chain, trying its darndest to do something, anything – whether beating on its own body, drumming the floor or even debasing itself with suggestive caresses – that might somehow connect with the audience before it. It’s this abjectness that has stuck with me, an abjectness that not only comes from the attempt so circumscribed by the failure, but from the fact that this object – an object that briefly achieves something so close to actual vitality and life – is destined to perform its choreography of desire and resistance ad infinitum. As for the audience, they stand there in the denatured space of the gallery. Their phones are raised, recording the spectacle for whatever, in our increasingly degraded times, can be claimed as posterity.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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