Jordan Wolfson does not shy away from controversy. His unique mashup of cultural historical tropes with advances in computer technology, such as virtual reality, animatronics and robotics, has resulted in some indelible, unsettling and emotionally inflammatory works of art. As the Broad prepares to offer a special installation of Wolfson’s 2014 work (Female figure), it might expect some mixed reactions as well. In considering its exhibition debut here and now, in the midst of the #MeToo movement and our society's reckoning with treatment and portrayals of women in the media and in civic policy, there's no way this will go unremarked upon. Nor should it.
Undeniably intense and impactful as both a sculpture and an experience, (Female figure) occupies a small, sparse room and can be viewed only in groups of four people or fewer at a time, but it has a lot going on. For seven intense minutes, during which emotions careen among curiosity, mild panic, laughter, shame, desire and frustration, an animatronic woman dances, sings, speaks, flirts, challenges, startles and makes extended eye contact with the viewers.
Her costume is kitschy and smeared with dirt, her blond wig is Barbie-esque, her witch mask and piercing eyes are haunting and at times rather frightening. She faces a mirrored wall to which she is connected by a shiny steel beam in her solar plexus. It looks painful, or as if it would be painful if she were sentient — which her organic gyrations and frequent direct eye contact are telling your brain that she is. All of this happens in the context of an overtly articulated discourse on exaggerated male desire, the female body as an object and site of spectacle, an array of other hypersexualized pop culture triggers, and all manner of problems with voyeurism. But in a way, the uncanny valley–like experience of interacting and empathizing with anthropomorphic software is arguably the work’s main topic.
Because encountering the work is more immersive than, say, a passively viewed work of video art, its dimensions of cognitive dissonance are amplified. Wolfson’s contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial — a VR program of horrible violence happening — was called shocking and even traumatic, igniting impassioned debate itself. (Female figure) is in style much less aggressive, but then, as with that Whitney piece, its implications stay with you long after the seven minutes are over, urgently requiring the viewer to figure out not only how they feel about what they have seen but exactly how real it really was.
Notably, the artist has not gone for extreme naturalism; joints are left open as visible machinery parts, for example, and other scars of artifice are highlighted rather than hidden or smoothed over. There is no moment at which the conscious brain is fooled. But the subconscious, the instincts, the gut reactions — that’s another story. The zigzagging between awareness and illusion, and the moment when viewers start to pay attention to their own feelings in real time, is made possible by technology. The sexuality holds your attention long enough to notice that. But at the same time, the content absolutely has the real potential to outrage and exasperate viewers who are not in the mood for a low-key nightmarish exotic dancer with her own raw emotional landscape.
By physically implicating the viewer in a direct action of sexualized spectacle, and driving the point home with the intimacy and individuality of the experience, (Female figure) encourages viewers to consider issues of political and social constructs around power and gender but further, whether the artist is critiquing or participating in these constructs, and what role the aesthetic qualities of new technology has to play in how these constructs are generated and amplified in public life.
Tickets are free, part of the Broad's general free admission, but timed reservations are required. The Broad, 221 S. Grand Ave., downtown. Tue.-Wed., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thu.-Fri., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; free. Oct. 11-Jan. 20. Not suitable for children, to say the least.