The Puppet Master

With his eerie animatronic figures, the artist Jordan Wolfson is able to hold the viewer transfixed. And his new video work at Moderna Museet is having the same spellbinding effect.

In Velvet Buzzsaw, the recently released Netflix horror movie set in the art world, Jake Gyllenhaal plays an influential art critic who visits Art Basel Miami. In one scene, he dismisses a high-tech robotic sculpture on display: “Wolfson, Female Figure, four years ago… An iteration. No originality, no courage.” Having his name and work mentioned in a major film about the art world is clear evidence of the status the 38-year-old American artist Jordan Wolfson has achieved. Wolfson’s Female Figure of 2014 is an elaborate robotic sculpture in a dirty but seductive outfit that dances in front of a mirror it’s permanently attached to with a pole. Her face is covered with an evil-looking Venetian mask and, through it, her dark, piercing eyes glue themselves to the viewer in the room as she dances to pop songs and delivers monologues. The robot was created using animatronics (the technique first used by Disney in the early 1960s), combined with a facial-recognition programme that controls her gaze. Wolfson worked over a long period with Hollywood technicians to create the work, which instantly had a huge impact on the art world.

In 2016, while running around galleries in Chelsea, New York, I stumbled upon Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture at David Zwirner: it left me stunned. When you’ve seen numerous artworks in all types of media throughout your life, you rarely get that affected. But witnessing a giant puppet-on-a-string type of Howdy Doody doll being dragged around the gallery floor by heavy chains suspended from a mechanised gantry was something completely different. The puppet’s hypnotic blue eyes follow you throughout its tortuous performance and a strange kind of relationship develops between it and the viewer. The heavy physical presence in combination with the digital technology (the puppet’s eyes also have facial recognition) create a theatrical sensation that is hard to shake off. Suddenly, a Percy Sledge song comes over loudspeakers at high volume, almost bringing you back to reality.

When asked about the music he often mixes in, Wolfson says, “The way I choose it is intuitive. I’ll hear hundreds of songs and try them for size in my head, but the ones that work are the most effortless intuitions and I just see it with the imagery and so I trust it.” What about popular culture in general? It is so present in all of Wolfson’s work that I wonder if he still can consume popular culture. “I don’t really try to see culture. I’m just looking out at it and when I purposely open myself to the space of a new project, things organically come in.” Moderna Museet in Stockholm is currently presenting Riverboat Song, a recent video work by Wolfson that the museum has purchased for its collection. Despite being video, this installation is also very physical – the room is filled with lush purple carpet and the giant screen faces the back wall so you almost have to squeeze yourself in front of it.

The animation features a typical Wolfson character getting chopped up by a witch, as well as smoking rats in an aeroplane. Such scenes are mixed with found videos from the internet, including of how to slice an apple and a rough beating. It’s over the top, weird and thought-provoking all at the same time, almost dreamlike. Working with so many technologies, what impact does Wolfson think they all have on our minds? Is our ability to differentiate between the real world, the online world and our minds and dreams altered by what we see? “I think they are all separated by physical activity and our bodies’ position. For example, I’m sitting on a desk chair typing to you with full attention, when I’m looking at VR I’m standing up, when I’m surfing the internet maybe I’m leaning more forward and my body is at ease. For me, consciousness is consciousness divided by physical body orientation.” Wolfson’s first solo gallery exhibition took place at Brändström & Stene in Stockholm in 2002, so his present show at Moderna Museet is not his first time in Sweden. While studying for a BFA in sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design, he also took part in an exchange year at Konstfack, so I wondered how strong his connection with the Swedish capital is. “I’m not nostalgic, so I don’t have an emotional response to being back, but it is very nice to see old friends,” he told me when we met briefly during the installation of Riverboat Song at Moderna. And as for what’s next… “I’m beginning a new VR work, an animatronic work, and a series of graphic works focused on JFK Jr.”

Riverboat Song, until September 1; Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Team Credits:

Words by Jonas Kleerup
Portraits by John Scarisbrick

Picture Credits:

#1-2 John Scarisbrick
#3-4 Riverboat Song (2017), Stills from digital video, 7:28 minutes, © Jordan Wolfson
#5 Installation view, Jordan Wolfson, Colored sculpture (2016) in Manic / Love (Part 1), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2017) © Jordan Wolfson, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and David Zwirner, New York/London; photography by Gert Jan van Rooij (David Zwirner)
#6 Installation view, Jordan Wolfson, Female figure (2014) in Truth / Love (Part 2), Stedelijk Museum (2017) © Jordan Wolfson, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London, and David Zwirner, New York/London; photography by Gert Jan van Rooij (David Zwirner)