Jordan Wolfson: Riverboat Song
Venue: Pond Society, No.2555-4, Longteng Avenue, Shanghai
Over the past decade Jordan Wolfson has emerged as one of America’s most thought-provoking young artists. Wolfson’s practice to date has spanned video, film, installation, performance, print and photography. His recent work has centred on ideas of literal and virtual reality, especially the projection of inner impulses (desire, optimism, violence or guilt) into constructed selves or scenarios. The power of Wolfson’s work owes equally to the visceral impact of its complex, animated representations – which slide seamlessly from banal to violent, and from vividly imaginary to scarily real – and to its disturbing refusal to judge.
Riverboat Song is a narcissistic surreal nightmare, drawn from the banalities and horrors of contemporary life. The seven-minute video looks back to Wolfson’s trilogy of animated films – Con leche (2009), Animation, masks (2011), and Raspberry poser (2012). It extends these earlier works’ explorations of self, reality and the imagination through an amalgam of animated characters, interior monologue, internet clips and pop music. Presented on a cinematic scale in a carpeted space, the video transports the viewer into a dreamlike and distorted otherworld. It centres on a Huckleberry Finn-style character – tousle-haired, giant-eyed and dressed in rags – who has seemingly stepped out of a Disney movie into a lurid parallel-reality.
Riverboat song begins with the boy gyrating in high-heels to Iggy Azelea’s Work – a sexualised dance made dark and ridiculous. The soundtrack and setting then shift into an emptier, internalised space: the cartoon boy is visualised in a white void, delivering a monologue voiced by the artist. Addressed to an absent lover, this unfolds as a chain of statements and demands – confessional, coercive, retributive. The words are funnelled through a variety of cartoon cut-outs, fictional ‘selves’ which alternately mask and magnify the statements’ import. The Huck Finn boy is replaced by a grinning crocodile reclining in a bath overflowing with sparkling bubbles, who gives way to a pair of horses sitting at a dinner table.
As the words intensify in candour and perversity, the cartoons grow in incongruity – medium jarring with message. And yet the cartoon bodies also periodically direct their gazes at the viewer, setting up a channel between the fantasy world of the animation and the reality of the viewer’s experience. As Wolfson has observed (in relation to the earlier film Animation, masks): “how do you look at this character, then how do you take away the objectivity of looking at this character, and how do I have these two different versions of content travel through to the viewer?”.
Throughout Riverboat song, Wolfson adapts the formulaic and banal stuff of the virtual world – avatars, memes, clips – and coerces them into a disjointed psychodrama. The ‘self’ is split, multiplied and layered. The soundtrack of the film is likewise a collage of different textures and registers – music, speech and silence. In a sequence which suggests a subliminal fantasy brought to life, the cartoon boy urinates in giant gleaming arc and hungrily drinks the cascading yellow liquid. From this scene of gleeful aberration, the video switches abruptly to a sequence of snapshot YouTube clips accompanied by soul music – videos dealing variously with artificial intelligence, automata, violent video games, and real violence. One fleeting clip shows a pair of brawling men, one viciously raining punches on the other. This was the stimulus behind Wolfson’s virtual reality work Real violence (2017). The artist has described the sudden transition from animation to internet clips as reflecting a shift from the interior imagination (in all its fictions, fantasies and distortions) to a negotiation between self and the external world. Between 2009 and 2012, he produced a trilogy of animated films, Con Leche (2009), Animation Masks (2011), and Raspberry Poser (2012). In a number of Wolfson’s animated films, including Riverboat song (2017), a central character or ‘avatar’ appears as a kind of stand-in for the artist, but also – more impersonally – as a conduit for contemporary anxieties, prejudices and desires. Wolfson’s practice has also included the dazzling automata (Female Figure) (2014) and Colored sculpture (2016) – animatronic works which play with the long history of the ‘living statue’, exploring the distinction between art and life, sculptural object and sentient being. In his meticulously composed inkjet prints, as in his video works, Wolfson interweaves computer-generated imagery and found photography in multiple layers. In his most recent sculptures, Wolfson has given arresting physical shape to the some of the various fictions, fairy tales and characters which have recurred throughout his work.
About the artist
Jordan Wolfson was born in 1980 in New York. In 2003, he received his B.F.A. in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. His work Real violence (2017) was recently displayed at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, New York. Solo exhibitions include TRUTH / LOVE and MANIC / LOVE , Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (2016 and 2017); Jordan Wolfson: Colored sculpture, LUMA Foundation, Arles, France (2016); Jordan Wolfson: Two Early Works, Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio (2015); Jordan Wolfson: Ecce Homo/le Poseur, organised by the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (S.M.A.K.) in Ghent (2013); and Raspberry Poser, Chisenhale Gallery, London (2013). Group exhibitions include World As Cartoon, Tate Britain, London (2017); Manifesta 10, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (2014); 6th Glasgow International (2014); and 14 Rooms, curated by Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Art Basel (2014). In 2009 he received the Cartier Award from the Frieze Foundation.