Sweet Dream Or A Beautiful Nightmare: The Uncanny Horror of Jordan Wolfson’s ‘(Female figure)’

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014 (all images courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York)

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014 (all images courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York)

“My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house,” unsettlingly proclaims artist Jordan Wolfson’s haunting creation, (Female figure), during both the introduction and conclusion of its seven-minute cycle in Wolfson’s solo exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery. And it certainly is her house now as she conjures a sense of uncanny dread in a soundproof room in the gallery.

Wolfson’s (Female figure) is experienced with one or two other people (reservations necessary and difficult to obtain), bringing her (its?) existential horror to a personal, intimate level. Constructed by Wolfson in close collaboration with Spectral Motion, a special effects studio in Los Angeles, (Female figure) is perhaps the most lifelike automaton I’ve ever seen. Life-size, the automaton wears a slinky babydoll lingerie dress, thigh-high “fuck me” boots, and a witch harlequin mask, covering half of her blond head. Smeared with smutty soot all over her idealized and hypersexualized body, (Female figure) is at once grotesque and appealing. Just think, this is even before she begins moving and talking.

Dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” and a slowed-down narcotic version of Robin Thicke’s slightly rapey anthem “Blurred Lines,” (Female figure) writhes, twists, points at viewers, beckons them, mouths the words and wiggles her stunningly realistic fingers. Between her dance numbers, (Female figure) speaks vague phrases in Jordan Wolfson’s own voice, confusing the gender of the animatronic sculpture. If that weren’t enough to be completely frightening, (Female figure) is equipped with facial recognition technology, allowing her to gaze steadily and directly into the viewer’s eyes.

In addition to (Female figure), Wolfson’s exhibition presents a range of his other work including his video Raspberry Poser, which features, among other seemingly random images, an HIV virus bouncing around contemporary SoHo (i.e. an urban mall), a ginger cartoon repeatedly eviscerating himself and Wolfson, dressed as a punk, in Paris to a mesmerizing soundtrack of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams.”

Despite the layers of meaning in Wolfson’s video, I believe it is necessary to take a deep, and yes, dark look at Wolfson’s (Female figure). Undeniably a landmark artwork and unlike anything I have ever seen, (Female figure) merges art and technology, raising questions of art historical references, the disruption of the gaze, the uncanny and maybe even, eternal recurrence.

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Despite its cutting-edge technological prowess, as well as (Female figure)‘s own statement of the death of her parents, (Female figure) is certainly not out of touch with its art historical predecessors or even, Wolfson’s own body of work, which often presents an unwavering and troubling gaze in video form.

As Mike Kelley states in his essay “Playing With Dead Things: On The Uncanny,” “For me, history is not denied here–it is evoked” (74).

When (Female figure) gazed into my eyes…well, first, I began shaking and squelched the urge to run screaming out of the room and into the streets of Chelsea…but after that, I saw Manet’s Olympia and Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen YearsI saw RealDolls and Hans Bellmer’s DollI saw Eyes Wide Shut and intimidating strippers in rundown dives. I saw retail mannequins and Narcissister.

In many ways, (Female figure)‘s programmed performance is the next logical step after performance artist Narcissister’s mannequin-like evocation of ultimate female sexuality, abjection and camp (there is no way you can watch (Female figure) gyrate to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” without thinking of camp). Constructing a hyper-sexualized female body that is at once alluring and grotesque, both Narcissister and (Female figure) direct the gaze of the objectified–whether a woman performer or an actual object–back at the viewer. As I’ve discussed previously here on Filthy Dreams and elsewhere, Narcissister uses her eponymous mannequin mask to deflect the viewer’s gaze, hide her identity and trouble the power structure of audience to objectified female performer, striking fear into the hearts of her audience members.

Likewise, Wolfson’s (Female figure) contorts the normative gaze of the viewer to the art object in a similar manner. Looking into the mirror, directly at the two or three viewers in the small room, (Female figure), as an object and as an objectified woman, gazes back at the viewers. Her gaze is inescapable and penetrating, uncomfortable and unavoidable. Like an Olympia of 2014, (Female figure) dismantles the audience’s gaze, destabilizing their relation to the art object as she looks back.

In fact, her power over the viewer’s gaze transcends merely gazing back. In one part of the cycle, (Female figure) demands several times, “Close your eyes,” as she intensely peers at each person in the room. Directing the audience to avert their own gazes, (Female figure) not only meets our gaze but attempts to control our own. Not that I saw anyone closing their eyes. As for me, I had to watch her to make sure she didn’t become sentient, killing us all and going on a rampage through Chelsea.

Naturally, the main difference between Narcissister and (Female figure)‘s manipulation of the viewer’s gaze lies in the status of (Female figure) as an object. While Narcissister may play with the divisions between object, subject and objectified woman with her mask and certain doll-like performances, she remains a person enacting a performance. On the other hand, Wolfson’s (Female figure) is a sculptural object, an automaton, who has been encoded to perform this act, which recalls the conception of the uncanny.

In his 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” Freud describes the uncanny as something that is at once repulsive and attractive, alluring and abject. For Freud, this sense of the uncanny is related to a subconscious confrontation with the id, a face-to-face with the repressed. Watching (Female figure) slap her ass, grind and stare down the audience in a twisted witch mask and smudged body, it is certainly no stretch to label (Female figure) a major accomplishment in uncanny horror.

Another of Filthy Dreams’ favorite artists and certainly no stranger to the uncanny with his own utilization and obsession with tacky stuffed animals, Mike Kelley delves into the nature of the uncanny in his essay “Playing with Dead Things: On The Uncanny,” related to his curated exhibition The Uncanny. In his essay, Kelley investigates various forms of the uncanny from scale to color to the readymade and the double.

Examining the unique feeling of encountering the uncanny, Kelley describes, “The uncanny is a somewhat muted sense of horror: horror tinged with confusion. It produces “goose bumps” and is ‘spine tingling’” (73). Well, that pretty much describes the singular stomach-churning, swirling scare of viewing (Female figure).

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

As Kelley also reveals, his feelings of coming into contact with the uncanny “were provoked by a confrontation between ‘me’ and ‘it’ that was highly charged, so much so that ‘me’ and ‘it’ become confused” (73). An important distinction in understanding the uncanny, the uncanny’s true troubling nature seems to come from a confusion between the living subject and the dead object, putting the definition of liveness into question. Pointing to Freud’s essay, Kelley quotes, “Freud cites Ernst Jentsch, who located the uncanny in ‘doubts’ about ‘Whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate’” (73).

Turning to (Female figure), this sculptural automaton certainly forces the viewer to wonder about the blurry divisions between the real and the unreal as her movements, gaze and pointy-teethed mouth appear almost human. With exception of the ball joints at her shoulders and elbows, Wolfson’s (Female figure) appears almost true to life.

As Kelley continues, nearly articulating the experience of (Female figure), “these feelings seem related to so-called out-of-body experiences where you become so bodily aware that you have the sense of watching yourself from outside yourself. All of these feelings are provoked by an object, a dead object that has a life of its own, a life that is somehow dependent on you, and is intimately connected in some secret manner to your own life” (73).

Linking this “secret” connection to Freud’s notion of the familiar and the repressed, Kelley, who was equally interested in representing the repressed through the uncanny, observes, “Freud’s contribution was to link the uncanny to the familiar. He defines the uncanny as the class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known and once very familiar, yet now concealed and kept out of sight. It is the unfamiliar familiar, the conventional made suspect” (94).

Now, this discussion of the uncanny in relation to (Female figure) begs the enormous, and possibly unanswerable, question: What is the familiar, the repressed or the intimate connection that (Female figure) evokes in the viewer?

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Attached to the mirror, in which she gazes, with a metal rod bursting from her abdomen as she repeats the same tired songs and bizarre phrases again and again and again for different sets of viewers, I cannot help but bring into the conversation Filthy Dreams’ new favorite nihilistic detective, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, and his articulation of time as a flat circle, related to Nietzsche’s understanding of the eternal recurrence.

*grabs a can of Lonestar, a cigarette* Ok, we’re ready:

An existentially appalling (and for some of us, appealing) concept, as both Rust Cohle and Nietzsche knew, Nietzsche discusses his conception of the eternal recurrence in The Gay Scienceexplaining, ‘What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!'” (341).

Distorting this idea, the eternal recurrence has reemerged into our collective conversations with Nic Pizzolatto’s surprisingly philosophically rich True Detective. In True Detective, Rust Cohle gives the eternal recurrence a circular form, stating “Time is a flat circle,” describing how everything that happens will happen over and over again.

Relating to this concept of the flat circle to Wolfson’s (Female figure), her repeated performances or even more perfectly, cycles, as the docent at David Zwirner called them, are a constant re-performance of the same programmed dances, movements, happenings and phrases. (Female figure) will dance to “Applause” day after day during the run of the exhibition, as new viewers applaud as if it is new every time.

Even the structure of one full cycle is constructed as an unending circle with (Female figure) both beginning and ending the act with the words, “My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. this is my house,” before the electronic opening of “Applause” starts blaring. If it weren’t for the docent appearing to usher the viewers in and out of (Female figure)‘s “house,” there is a possibility that (Female figure)‘s performance would fold in on itself, ever occurring and ever repeating.

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

Jordan Wolfson, (Female figure), 2014

And perhaps, this is the repressed, the familiar and the intimate connection between the viewer and (Female figure), as well as the source of its horror. In performing the same songs over and over again, (Female figure) enacts a never-ending, never-escaping spectacle of the eternal recurrence or flat circle, which, if Nietzsche and Rust Cohle are to be believed, represents our own existential condition, trapped in a merry-go-round of experiences.

For in the end, aren’t we all just like (Female figure)a prisoner, gazing into a mirror, forever doomed to endlessly dance to Lady Gaga like a nightclub act that never ends?

2 thoughts on “Sweet Dream Or A Beautiful Nightmare: The Uncanny Horror of Jordan Wolfson’s ‘(Female figure)’

  1. I loved the ‘never ending’ aspect and how each time it is a ‘new spectacle’ for us viewers and it’s the same damn thing for ‘her’.

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