Who is Jordan Wolfson, Anyway?

The National Gallery of Australia’s announcement of Jordan Wolfson's 6.8-million-dollar commission – amongst forced Federal Government cuts at the Gallery, and with shouts through the Know My Name campaign for more women artists to be acquired by the institution – has incited comments in and beyond the arts sector. But who is Jordan Wolfson, anyway?

When it became known last year that the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) had commissioned an artwork by a controversial American artist that few Australians had ever heard of and had paid AUD 6.8 million for it, public and critics alike were aghast. Journalists rushed into print to damn the work unseen and to question the NGA’s apparent profligacy.

Sebastian Smee, the Australian Pulitzer Prize–winning art critic now writing for the Washington Post, joined in from America. It’s “the sort of thing that will look like a total waste of money in a fairly short amount of time,” he told the Canberra Times. 

The artist is Jordan Wolfson, whose reputation as an art provocateur is well established in Europe and the United States, where his videos, animatronics, and robotic installations – with their mix of gratuitous violence, misogyny, sexism, racism, and hate – have divided public opinion. Many critics see his work as little more than adolescent fantasies. Others – specifically those in the art world – see them quite differently. Nick Mitzevich, Director of the NGA who commissioned the work, told Artist Profile that “Jordan’s work pushes the envelope of what art is in the twenty-first century . . . [he] critiques the world we are in right now. At times he uses provocation as one of those tools.” Now, one year later, Mitzevich remains a staunch defender of Wolfson, saying he was surprised that critics could condemn something they had not yet seen. 

The work, which was originally known as The Cube and now, Mitzevich says, is untitled, was to be a mirrored cube with animated arms and hands, suspended from a gantry by chains that would drag it around the gallery space. “Cube can rape the floor. Cube can caress the floor. Cube can play its own body like an instrument,” Wolfson told Dana Goodyear in a 2020 profile she wrote on Wolfson for the New Yorker.

Due to arrive this winter but now delayed by COVID-19 perhaps for another year, Cube remains a work in progress. Wolfson declined to be interviewed for this article, as did his gallerist, David Zwirner of the eponymous blue-chip New York gallery.

Mitzevich is a tough yet benevolent director who has successfully helmed galleries in Newcastle, Brisbane, and Adelaide. In commissioning the Wolfson work he sees himself as making sure the DNA of the NGA’s original collecting philosophy, established in the 1980s by the NGA’s first director, James Mollison, is continued. That philosophy is “evolving the collection [with works] that are emblematic of our times. Jordan . . . an artist in his early forties . . . has had significant impact on the world of art and . . . should be . . . in the national collection,” Mitzevich said defensively.

That significant impact has been almost exclusively confined to the Northern Hemisphere, where Wolfson’s work hangs in several institutional galleries. But his animations and videos clearly push the boundaries of good taste. For example, his large-scale animatronic installation Colored Sculpture, 2016, sees a Huckleberry Finn–type larger-than-life–size mannequin suspended by chains from a gantry, that drags it around the gallery space in a gratuitously violent frenzy. Huck Finn is violently hoisted off the ground, thrown down hard on the floor, upended and dropped on his head several times, to a recording of Percy Sledge’s 1966 hit single When a Man Loves a Woman as well as Wolfson’s own syrupy voice which recites a list of things he would like to do to the viewer. In 2018, the work was shown at London’s Tate Modern and acquired for the collection.

George Muir, Director of Collections at the Tate, told AP by email that “Colored Sculpture powerfully embodies many of the artist’s enduring interests: his use of technology . . . and the depiction of violence, and his construction of fictional personas and narratives.” Maybe so, but its component parts seem to indulge in shock and spectacle. 

Mitzevich believes such a view is simplistic. “I wouldn’t describe [his work] as spectacle . . . regardless of what the work is, there is always an emotional response to the world [Jordan] critiques . . . using all tools at his disposal to elicit emotions and to ask the audience to think about the work and the world we are in,” Mitzevich said.

Outside of the cloistered world of curators, institutional galleries, art fairs, and gallery directors, few Australians would have heard of Wolfson. Even those in Asia are bemused. For example, Pi Li, the senior creator at Hong Kong’s new contemporary art museum M+, and responsible for several thousand works of contemporary art, told me he never heard of Wolfson. 

Wolfson shot to international attention largely through one work, an ambitious animatronic robot Female Figure, 2014, first shown at Zwirner’s gallery. According to American art critic Thomas Bettridge, who interviewed Zwirner in 2018, Wolfson walked in off the street in 2013 with a concept and a plea for cash to bring that concept into fruition. It would be an animated, hypersexualised, life-size mannequin that would cavort and prance in front of a mirror to which she would be attached by a steel pole. Zwirner agreed to finance the project.

Female Figure, 2014, is sexual and provocative, but dressed in thigh-high white boots and lingerie with long blonde hair and a ghoulish green face mask, behind which is hidden the very latest facial recognition technology, is devoid of any femineity. She is also devilishly scary as she gyrates to a pop-music soundtrack. Catch her eye as you look on voyeuristically and she rather chillingly, will catch yours in return, an action that lends proceedings a touch of horror. 

When Female Figure was shown at Zwirner’s in 2014 it caused a sensation. Queues soon formed to see the confronting figure perform. The finished work proved seminal for the artist, not simply from the viewpoint of technical wizardry but from the fact that it seemed to blur the distinction between humans and robotic, free-thinking machines. Robots, we are all taught to believe through popular culture movies such as West World, 1973, and Ex Machina, 2015 – both of which feature fiendish robots who think for themselves with a twisted logic –are deceitful and vindictive creatures.

In his next major work, Real Violence, 2017, Wolfson took gratuitous violence to a new level. The ninety-second virtual reality work can only be viewed on headsets and shows a Wolfson simulacrum on the streets of New York relentlessly bashing, with a baseball bat, a kneeling figure – an animatronic doll augmented in post-production with CGI, to look human. Eventually the baseball bat is discarded, and the Wolfson figure begins to stomp on the now-dead victim. 

When it was first shown in 2017 at New York’s Whitney Biennale, Real Violence received a mixed reception, polarising the audience. Dan Fox, the well-respected frieze art critic, condemned the piece as a “pantomime snuff movie.” 

 Jarrod Rawlins, senior curator at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, takes an opposing view. In 2019, Rawlins was the first curator to show a Wolfson work in Australia at Dark Mofo, Mona’s annual solstice festival. That work was Real Violence. He told AP that he thought the figure being stomped on looked more “like a crash-test dummy.” But he didn’t retreat from his defence of this new, extravagant commission. Wolfson is “an artist everyone loves to hate . . . even though they know nothing about him,” he said.  “I don’t think that AUD 6.8 million is a lot of money . . . to spend on a major commission.”

It is a view shared by Australian art critic Ben Gennochio, currently based in New York. “Jordan is an incredible artist who really has his career ahead of him. Museums have to engage the present, if only to remain relevant, and that means taking chances on acquisitions,” he said. It seems as though the art-world hierarchy is closing ranks, and it is hard to find a dissenting voice.

Mitzevich, however, remains in the dark as to what the work formerly known as The Cube will look like, or otherwise simply refuses to say. One source who offers an intriguing glimpse of what it might be is American filmmaker James Crump, who last year made Spit Earth: Who is Jordan Wolfson? a documentary on the artist. In the film, Wolfson is seen in his LA studio toying with a large, animated cube about the size of a man’s upper body, with spindly arms attached. For one moment, Wolfson hesitatingly looks and speaks to camera. “Do you think it is beautiful? It is. No?” Wolfson asks. “I found Jordan to be one of the most fearful and insecure individuals I have ever met in my life,” Crump volunteered from New York.

Wolfson’s insecurities cannot have been helped when, Goodyear claims, he failed to find a prominent American museum that would be interested in debuting The Cube. Wolfson instead made a “pitch” video and turned his gaze east. That video landed on Mitzevich’s desk although how remains a mystery, and not one that Mitzevich wants to shed light on. “I won’t comment on that. But what I will say is that I have been looking at several artists and that (Wolfson’s) dealer brought the work to my attention. He was one of the artists on our list of potential future acquisitions . . . that fit the national collection,” Mitzevich said. 

Until The Cube arrives in Australia – and it may still be a year away – critics will continue to spar, with some even wondering if Mitzevich, so early in his career at the NGA, has made taken a misstep at a time when museums, including the NGA, find their budgets under pressure through efficiency dividends, and having to introduce redundancies to make ends meet. 

Mitzevich was at pains to clear up any misunderstanding that might exist on NGA budgets. “The acquisition program and [its] budget is quite a separate budget to our operating costs. [There] is no connection between the two. One budget can’t be tipped into the other . . . If I could tip one bucket into the other and save jobs, I would, but I can’t,” he said.

Even so, Mitzevich remains convinced that Wolfson is an artist whose work needs to be in the national collection. “What is interesting about him is he is both a traditional artist – in that he makes things for you to view – but he is also a performance artist in that the works hover between performance and static works. To enter the national collection [a work] must signify a resolution in an artist’s practice, or a moment of breakthrough, or a moment of innovation in how we see art,” he said.

Artist, writer, and University of Sydney academic Dr. Adam Geczy is not accepting any of this, and is prepared to speak out. “Wolfson’s work is an empty vessel, a husk. It is meretriciously pornographic, onanistic rubbish that plays to the gallery. It is lurid and extreme histrionics designed to attract attention. Scratch the surface and you will find there is nothing there,” he said when contacted by AP.

Such views may be extreme, but whether Wolfson’s mix of misogyny, sexism and violence is a good fit with a world now more concerned with the sexual abuse of women and social equity, remains to be seen. What is clear is that Wolfson is a divisive artist whose work will polarise audiences.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021.
Images courtesy James Crump and Summitridge Pictures. 

Jordan Wolfson: Body Sculpture
9 December 2023 – 28 April 2024
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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