Artists Whitney Biennial 2017

A History of Violence: Jordan Wolfson on His Shocking Foray into VR at the Whitney Biennial

Jordan Wolfson photographed on December 12, 2016, in New York. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Jordan Wolfson photographed on December 12, 2016, in New York.

©KATHERINE MCMAHON

A cataloguing of violence in art might begin with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s teeming battle scene, The Triumph of Death, and continue on to Caravaggio’s Grand Guignol Judith Beheading Holofernes. From there, you see Peter Paul Rubens’s Massacre of the Innocents, Nicolas Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women, Francisco Goya’s ravenous Saturn Devouring His Son, George Bellows’s ringside views of bloody boxing matches, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Leon Golub’s napalm victims, and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s apocalypse in miniature, Hell. The latest entry might be Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence, which debuts at the Whitney Biennial on March 17. In January, Wolfson had me over to his New York apartment to see this new virtual reality work, in which the artist beats a man repeatedly with a baseball bat.

“One of the problematic things with a medium like VR is that through its nature, people call it an experience,” Wolfson said.

He was sitting on a couch in his apartment, wearing a Vetements hoodie with “Sexual Fantasies” written across the chest.

“An experience means that something is hypothetically interactive,” he said. “And I don’t think that interactive things make for good art.”

For a few years now, VR has made for captivating journalism. The New York Times now regularly advertises VR stories with phrases like “put yourself at the center” and teases experiences like “embedding with Iraqi forces.” Long before he started experimenting with VR, Wolfson’s work shared with the medium a certain immersive quality. To watch an animated mumblecore Shylock flipping through a copy of Vogue in the video Animation, masks at Alex Zachary Peter Currie in 2012 was to dip a toe in the waters of Wolfson. To see Female Figure—a dancing, menacing mannequin whose eyes followed viewers in a mirror at David Zwirner in 2014—was a full dunk.

Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014. ©JORDAN WOLFSON/COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ AND DAVID ZWIRNER

Jordan Wolfson, Female Figure, 2014.

©JORDAN WOLFSON/COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ AND DAVID ZWIRNER

Then came Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture at Zwirner last year, a gigantic, animatronic redheaded puppet—part Alfred E. Newman, part Howdy Doody—strung up by chains attached to winches that whirred back and forth, to and fro, dragging the articulated dummy around the gallery. The action—programmed by the artist—was balletic. Occasionally the figure, equipped with facial-recognition software, would pause, straighten, and lock eyes with a viewer, prompting something akin to sympathy. And then (to the tune of “When a Man Loves a Woman”), the battered and scuff-marked creature would get dropped to the floor again.

Like Female Figure and Colored Sculpture, Real Violence relies on the viewer’s physical reaction, the bodily contortions familiar to anyone who has watched someone using a VR headset. With works like these, Wolfson is playing on the complex relationship between sculpture and the body.

“When you see a sculpture, like a Bernini sculpture, you circle around it, you move up, you’re using your body,” he said. Speaking about Real Violence, he added, “What I feel about this is, the human body is a sculpture and this is like a body sculpture.”

Part of the weirdness of Colored Sculpture and Female Figure was watching fellow viewers catch the figure’s eyes, and wondering whether you’d be next. At the Whitney Biennial, you’ll see on approach your fellow museum visitors in their heavy black VR headsets, writhing, twitching, and turning. But once you’re in the virtual back alleyway with Wolfson and his victim, you’re on your own.

In the last few years, VR has become the art-tech gizmo du jour. In January, the New Museum and Rhizome presented six new VR commissions from the medium’s leading proponents, including Rachel Rossin, Jon Rafman, and Jacolby Satterwhite. On the tech side, Google has recruited Jeff Koons and Dustin Yellin to help launch its VR project, Tilt Brush. And Visionaire recently teamed up with KAWS (along with brand partner M&M’s) for a VR project that debuted at the New York Public Library. You’d expect all this hoopla to repel Wolfson, who thus far has crafted ways of adapting technology rather than chase them. And yet, he owns VR by avoiding the video-game-style fantasies often created for VR works—for instance, Rafman’s Transdimensional Serpent (2016). What makes Real Violence so terrifying is how accurately Wolfson’s virtual world replicates the one we live in.

“If I’m going to do this I need to purge the interactivity,” he said. “I did it through creating a distorting experience physically and a distorting experience contextually.”

The subject of this distorting experience is the same one he visited with Colored Sculpture last year—unrelenting violence. Before he handed me the rig, Wolfson walked me through what I would see (he was quick to add that he would probably tweak things in the weeks before the piece is installed at the Whitney).

Jordan Wolfson, Colored Sculpture, 2016. ©JORDAN WOLFSON/COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ AND DAVID ZWIRNER

Jordan Wolfson, Colored Sculpture, 2016.

©JORDAN WOLFSON/COURTESY SADIE COLES HQ AND DAVID ZWIRNER

“You put it on, and you’re looking up at the sky, and you’re in an urban setting, people everywhere, and then it rotates backward, then it rotates to the crowd, and then it comes forward and you see me,” he began. “And then you see me assault a man who’s about 15 years older than me. I assault this person to the point where to you, as the viewer, it is ambiguous whether or not he will survive.”

He paused for a second.

“That’s the contextual distortion,” he explained. “You’re experiencing pure violence, you’re experiencing real violence. The depiction of actual, real violence is a kind of abstraction.”

In fact, the scenes between Wolfson and his victim—a dummy—were filmed in downtown Los Angeles for VR viewing, then altered radically in post-production using images of an actor’s face. “You have this incredibly advanced 3-D face-swapping technology, and they swap the face and the hands so it gets put on the animatron,” Wolfson said. “So I beat this person, and then we create the effect of this person going either from hysterical to passive shock, or from passive to passive shock.”

“So the person gets beaten, and then he’s looking into the camera,” he continued.

When Hollywood wants to create the effect of real violence, they call in stuntmen. I asked Wolfson why he didn’t do the same.

“We did these tests with stunt people and everything looked fake,” he said. “It was so obviously never a real fight. It’s never going to look real with stunt people because no one’s ever going to take a real hit. And I was like, well, then, the only thing to do is get an animatronic dummy and actually beat the shit out of it.”

“You might say to me, how is this real violence if it’s fake?” Wolfson asked, before handing me the VR headset.

I didn’t have an answer.

“The real violence isn’t depicted by the person suffering,” he said. “The real violence is actually depicted by the person implementing the violence.”

Another pause.

“And that’s me,” he said.

And then he handed me the headset. I watched as the sky came into view, and prayers in Hebrew, read by Wolfson, filled my ears. It occurred to me, before the action began, that Wolfson was getting to the frustration at the heart of VR: you feel like you’re present, but you have zero effect on the outcome of events. I jerked my head around a bit to claim some agency, but there was no avoiding what came next. It was virtual, but the beat down was real.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “A History of Violence.”

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