One of the most horrific persons in the art world (I will not name names) once told me that the only way to make an exhibition a success is to either include a big shot artist or to make it a spectacle (the example he mentioned is crushing puppies with a hammer, as a joke, he’s not thát horrible).
It’s easy to subvert this statement. What would count as a success? What about emerging artists? The role of institutions, what about themes, what about creative curating, I can go on and on and on.
However, I can’t deny there is a tendency to create a spectacle in the arts. One artist definitely guilty of incorporating said practice is Jordan Wolfson. His art is “real violence”. Quite literally actually. His Colored sculpture (2016) is a puppet hanging from chains, being dragged over the floor, and smacked on the floor, again and again. To make it even more intense, his face is animated and can recognize faces. Once found, he fixates on you while it’s going under. Every once in a while, Percy Sledge 1966 When a Man Loves a Woman is played loudly.
It’s a loud piece. The chains yank and clatter, the doll smashing on the floor. The violence might shock one, but Wolfson has made every effort to make it not look like a person. The doll is a hybrid of three representations of boyhood from American popular culture: Huckleberry Finn, Howdy-Doody, a character from a children’s TV show of the ’40s and ’50s, and Alfred E Neuman, the mascot of the satirical magazine Mad.
Violence is the common theme in Wolfson’s oeuvre. In a piece I haven’t seen, Real violence (2017), one can see a white man beating up another white man’s head with a VR experience headset.
In another piece, Riverboat song (2017), is a cartoon starring an animated and happy version of the boyhood doll. A lot happens. It starts with our protagonist dancing in high heels to hip-hop. He grows inflated cartoon breasts and ass, but they fall off. His journey is followed up with a crocodile in a bath, and punk rats smoking cigarets in a plane like it’s no one’s business. We hear the artist’s voice describing the worst narcissist expectations in a relationship such as: “I’d like you to understand that I’m not responsible for my rage but it is instead a response to your correctible defects.” The protagonist is ecstatically dancing in his own free-flowing urine for quite a while. But the violence is not far away. A witch cuts-up our boy like slices of bread. There’s a screenshot YouTube clip of a white man beating up a black youth. And then there is a silly clip of how to slice an apple.
It seems inevitable that his work is a critique of society, a person not having free will of one’s own. Or perhaps it’s a metaphor of growing up, endurance, facing difficulty. But it’s not. As he said: ” I never set out to make melancholic, sad or violent artwork. I just found that there was a kind of euphoric physical expression one could have when looking at things that carried a certain kind of movement, a certain type of spectacle.” Mengna Da from Hyperallergic already recognized that reducing violence to an aesthetic form is a privilege.
It also feels hollow. But it’s not, at least, not completely, as Wolfson has stated: “I had this idea from Adorno that to see the world you need to look at it through a cracked glass. If you imagined your day is a piece of string extending over 24 hours, so it includes your dreams, that string would be punctuated if you witnessed sex or violence, or dreamed about them. The rest of life is kind of flat. And so to see life through that kind of cracked lens is artistically what I want to do.” Still, making a spectacle of violence for solely aesthetic purposes in a time where violence is a daily threat for some people feels wrong. But it does start a conversation about it.
Colored sculpture is on view at Tate Modern in London, until August 26, 2018. Check the website for the timings. Riverboat Song is on view at David Zwirner’s 533 West 19th Street location in New York until June 30th, 2018. More info here.