A virtual reality headset over my eyes, headphones over my ears, a gallery assistant helps me grab the metal bar screwed to the plinth. “Hold on tight,” she says. Waiting in line, I watched a woman shudder, nearly overturning the plinth. Another ahead of me shook her head, trying to look somewhere else, but there was nowhere else to look. Someone else tore off the headset and walked away.
A view of the New York sky lurches to the mid-town street, where there’s a guy facing me on his knees. He looks glum. The artist, who I recognise, comes over, takes a swing and whacks him round the head with a baseball bat. The guy collapses, but the hitting doesn’t stop, pounding him again and again and stamping on his head, the body twitching insensible on the street. I cannot look away.
There is blood. It is such a nice day. Cars go by. There is even a song, or rather a Hebrew prayer, sung at Hanukkah at the lighting of the candles. The pounding doesn’t stop. A minute and a half in, it is over.
I’ve watched Jordan Wolfson’s Real violence a few times now. Drained of shock, I start to see the artist’s balletic moves, check the reactions of passing traffic, look for birds in the sky and technical giveaways; glitches between the human and the robotic. The chant jars.
Real violence caused a bit of controversy when it opened in March at New York’s Whitney Biennial. People queue to see it, some going especially to watch the animatronic model get whacked.
Wolfson, a 36-year-old Jewish New Yorker, is used to trouble. His 2012 film Raspberry Poser had animated Aids viruses and dancing condoms bouncing around downtown New York, onto car hoods and around swanky designer kitchens to Roy Orbison and a slowed down song by Beyoncé. Frightening, gratuitous, absurd, it was all these things and more.
People often confuse the artist with their art, a problem exacerbated by artists who encourage a reading of their work as autobiographical self-expression. Feel my pain. Love me, love my art. It is a wearying shtick. “You don’t like my show, I can tell,” Wolfson said to me last week. I protest, but what does liking have to do with anything? Is liking the point? What I don’t like, perhaps, is my own pleasure in all this frenzy. Real violence is no more real than a Tarantino movie, Pasolini’s Salò or a video game. Actual violence is everywhere and you don’t need a headset to experience it.
Downstairs at the same gallery Wolfson is showing two sculptures. A larger-than-life black mannequin lounges against a wall, feet splayed across the floor, his head held erect by a chain stretching from the ceiling. This is a monochrome, static version of a similar work, Colored sculpture, that Tate Modern will be showing next year. Eyes glowing, the puppet gets yanked around the gallery by its chains, an industrial marionette dragged across the floor, dancing in the air, swaying and falling to the noise of motorised hoists and gears.
Black sculpture is waiting, as it were, for its puppeteer. Next to it is a red shack, the elongated nose of a witch rising from the roof like a spire. The roof is a face, with a rictus grin. A sprawl of chains surrounds the shack, as if it too were a character in a puppet show. Virtual reality and CGI gimmicks, puppet shows and cartoon animations are the apparatus of fiction. What story does Wolfson tell?
Talking at the Royal Institution last week Wolfson discussed a video work in which he says: “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.” Wolfson’s parents, he told the audience, are alive. He is not gay and doesn’t want to be a poet. But aren’t the lines something like a poem? When he was growing up, he said, the family home was filled with his mother’s constant screaming. This is my house, she would scream. Wolfson’s mother is a psychoanalyst, and, he says, a kind woman. Perhaps the sculpture, the house of the wicked witch, is a memory of the violent sonic backdrop to his childhood.
Wolfson says his work is not autobiographical, and that one shouldn’t confuse the guy with the baseball bat, nor the brat in his latest video who speaks with Wolfson’s voice, with the artist himself. The artist is acting a role. Agatha Christie was not a multiple murderer and the author of Lolita was not a paedophile.
Watching him with the baseball bat, swinging and stomping, I was reminded of Bruce Nauman’s remark that art is like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. “Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming…” Nauman once said.
The witch makes a brief reappearance in a new video, Riverboat song, at the gallery’s Kingly Street space. The screen sits in the middle of a purple-carpeted floor. The protagonist, a cartoon Huck Finn in ragged trousers, dances in his mum’s high heels to Australian hip-hop artist Iggy Azalea’s 2013 song Work. Dancing in my mum’s heels, I’d just fall over – this boy has great slinky moves, but he is a cartoon. He grows pneumatic cartoon breasts and ass, but they fall off.
Pubescent gender confusion comes and goes, and pretty soon he, or Wolfson, gives us a chilling lesson in male narcissism and mental abuse – a story of gaslighting mind games and control. “I’d like you to understand that I’m not responsible for my rage but it is instead a response to your defects,” he wheedles, chillingly. This gets under my skin much more than the business with the baseball bat.
The voice goes on, while the boy is replaced by CGI punk rats, a green crocodile lounging in the bath and a pair of sleek, animated horses taking breakfast. There’s a lot more in the seven and a half minutes of Riverboat song. The boy frolics in a puddle of his own virulent yellow piss; a gleeful human fountain, drinking and delighting in frenzied urolagnia. He grins and meets our gaze, craving our complicity. Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman soundtracks one scene – accentuating the boy’s misogyny as he seeks his reflection in a mirror and catches our eye.
Then, finally, we get the real real violence – a screenshot YouTube clip of a beefy white man beating a black youth. A few seconds later it is gone, replaced by other, more anodyne clips about robotics and how to slice an apple.
Wolfson regards his art as a largely intuitive response to the world about him. It is a visceral and physical play of images, language and objects. Riverboat song is rich and complex and weird. It may even have moral purpose. A repellent yellow-toothed CGI rat drags on his cigarette, the word “Careful” curdling in smoke in the aeroplane aisle. In his talk, Wolfson explained that “it is a sign to be careful about how much you want to surrender to your narcissism”. Isn’t liking or not liking also a kind of surrender? Beats me.