Colored Sculpture, Jordan Wolfson
Be fooled by the friendly-sounding, PG-rated title of American artist Jordan Wolfson’s latest work at your peril. Nothing will prepare you for the noise; the bone rattling, clatter of an industrial chain violently falling and smacking down onto the ground, hauling with it its hostage: a seven-foot puppet which hurtles towards the concrete floor, limbs flailing.
It’s guttural and vicious. The figure’s forlorn body is dragged, pulled along before being hoisted in the air by the chain fixed at the top of his head. It's fate gets repeated but is no easier on the eye or ear. Replacement body parts lie in wait: this puppet is not meant to survive. Some people, I notice, struggle to watch this cycle of abuse. This is truly uncomfortable viewing.
The protagonist - if you will - of ' Colored Sculpture’ riffs on physical depictions of children from American Pop Culture. References to Mark Twain and the Chucky films, amongst others, quickly register. Made in the artist’s LA studio, the boy-like figure is formed of fibre-glass parts connected by metal links. The result is an animatronic puppet far more sinister than initially thought. It’s eyes ratchet up the intensity. The use of facial recognition technology allows it to fix its eyes on the viewer and return your gaze. Further control is handed over to it through the use of the voice, the puppet uttering threats to on-lookers. Distinctions between victim and aggressor become increasingly unintelligible.
The voice is that of the artist himself, his words puncturing the surge of Percy Sledge’s 1966 ballad ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, which soars awkwardly, almost mockingly. Positioning himself almost as a narrator, Wolfson links the work more directly to him, as author, creator and mouthpiece. When faced with such extreme displays of aggression and provocation, a biographical rationale or political angle are obvious places to look for an explanation. Is the work a response to childhood trauma? A comment perhaps, on threats of war or levels of violence in America?
In the past, Wolfson has side-stepped these accounts which seek to explain the violence in his work, no better illustrated than in ‘Real Violence’ (2017), a Virtual Reality video which sees a man- thought to be Wolfson- attacking a man around the head with a baseball bat. Such refusal to be drawn into a discussion about his moral intention, is frustrating though. Whilst artists should not be expected to give didactic readings of their work, equally in the context of this work, relying on the propositional logic of artistic expression, is unsatisfying if not disappointing.
For Wolfson, you get the impression that his primary concern in making 'Colored Sculpture’ is to make you feel and there is little doubt that this work does just that. Whether that feeling is repulsion, anger or amusement seems to be of less importance. My experience of Wolfson's work is that it forces you to confront the most primal and degrading of human impulses. It makes you question your own instincts, those with you and those stood alongside you in Tate Tanks: who has violent thoughts and how do they manifest? Other questions remain too. Why, if people are so horrified by what they are witnessing, do they linger and, on occasions, return to the work? Violence, it seems, can be as compelling as it is abhorrent. We are both transfixed and passive. To what extent does this make us, the viewer, as accountable as the aggressor?
Colored Sculpture, Jordan Wolfson, Tate Tanks @ Tate Modern | On view until 28 August | Mon & Tues Closed | Wednesday, Thursday & Sunday 10.00–14.00, 15.00–18.00 | Friday, Saturday 10.00–14.00, 15.00–18.00, 18.30–22.00 | Free entry