Pain, privilege and performance in Jordan Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture
In the centre of a white platform lies a boy, still, limp. The only sign of life is to be found in his eyes, blinking, moving around the space, staring pleadingly at those of us in the room. This eerie reverie is shattered with Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman being pumped through the speakers. Chains rattle and are wound up. The boy is shackled to these chains, one is fixed to his foot, another to his hand and a final one to the top of his head. We see the child suspended in the air, then dropped onto the floor beneath. We see this repeated over and over again. Sledge croons on obliviously and the boy himself shows no sign of pain, taking his torture in silence. We are prevented from intervening and stopping this brutality by a metal barrier running around the site. Each viewer is left disturbed, their consolation being the knowledge that this is not reality, but an artwork of Jordan Wolfson’s.
For those unaware of the work in question, I must confess that I have been disingenuous in my description of Wolfson’s Colored Sculpture. It should be pointed out that no children were harmed in the making of this work. Wolfson has made use of a heavily articulated puppet of a child, with the puppet’s head containing facial recognition software, seeking out our eyes, staring at us disconcertingly. This is not something which Wolfson has tried to hide and he has made no effort to try and have the viewer suspect that the puppet is an actual child. Nevertheless, we are left harrowed by the representation of something that is sadly, all too real.
At its core, Wolfson’s work constitutes a new chapter in the long relationship between acts of violence and art. Goya’s 1814 The Third of May 1808, for example, operates in a similar manner, with the artist using their work to try and evoke some semblance of the pain being felt by those it depicts. In Goya’s case, it is the horrors enflicted upon Spaniards by Napoleon. For Wolfson, it is the gruesome act of child abuse. Yet it is undeniable that for an average viewer, Colored Sculpture will lead to a more visceral, emotinal response than The Third of May 1808. We are able to sympathise with Goya’s partisans but we come much closer to empathy with Wolfson’s child.
At the same time, we do not respond to the violence in Colored Sculpture with pure pity. Wolfson’s sclupture is clearly marked out in the space that it lies within. It is also clearly marked out as an artwork — we are aware that what we are observing is a planned, controlled affair. As such, the viewer is able to observe what is taking place, without the urge to intervene. Stripped of any animalistic urge to protect, violence takes on a morbid fascination. Being so heavily exposed to violence in safety leads to a Ballardian situation, with minor emotions that are ordinarily overhwelmed by primal instincts rising up to the surface.
In the waking dream that now constitutes everyday reality, images of a blood-spattered widow, the chromium trim of a limousine windshield, the stylised glamour of a motorcade, fuse together to provide a secondary narrative with very different meanings.
- JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
These underlying, subconcious, emotions that we feel watching this pain clashes with the logical ethics of our consciousness. The viewer is acutely aware of how they should react to a childlike figure being relentlessley battered but this is not how they feel. A major aspect of Wolfson’s achievment in Colored Sculpture lies in this remarkable unease that he creates in the viewer, something that has rarely been managed so potently.
This could go some way in explaining the strength of criticism that Wolfson has faced in his depiction of violence. Writing in Hyperallergic, Mengna Da speaks of how Wolfson’s hyper-violent works are an excercise in privilege. She writes:
Not only does Wolfson’s reluctance to discuss white violence enhance a public dismissal of the problem, but his formalist approach indulges our culture’s fascination with gore and death while ignoring its causes and consequences in the real world, from the workplace to the Middle East. Intentionally deprived of meaning, Wolfson’s seemingly political artworks ring hollow
Her criticism of Wolfson is that his abstraction of human acts of violence lacks any connection with an average viewer, a viewer who lives in a world that is filled with violence, on a global and personal scale. For Wolfson to even be able to create works such as Colored Sculpture, he must evidently be in a position (as a result of his privilege) to not face pain on a daily basis. To me, this would appear to be reading an overly broad message from his work. Colored Sculpture, does not claim to address any institutionalised acts of violence such as war or police brutality but rather provides the viewer with an act of violence that transcends racial, gender or political structures. It is true that the figure he uses is of a white, male, child but the violence being enacted upon him from above (via the chains), is not specific to this identity of his. Sadly, cases of child abuse exist across the globe in all manner of communities. Wolfson has chosen a white boy for this work but he is not making a claim that it is only people that look like this figure who will face this treatment. He has also, notably, left the enactor of the violence faceless, neatly avoiding discussing who is responsible for what is occurring.
Of course, in all of this I must acknowledge the experiences that I brought to the piece. Living in the UK and viewing this work in London meant that my interpretation was not the same as that of those Americans who would have seen the work when it was first on show in New York. Race is nowhere near as significant a factor in Britain as it is in New York. Seeing a depiction of a young male being assaulted did not lead me to make a reference to the way in which young men of colour are regularly targeted by police forces (too often ending in their deaths) because this is far rarer in the UK (though it does exist here as well). It may be that I fail to see Wolfson’s privilege in his work because I too am privileged, though he is blinded by his race whilst I am blinded by my geography.
My privilege was made more glaringly obvious by my failure to pick up on Wolfson’s use of the word “colored” in the title. I felt that it was intended to draw attention to the Koons-esque colours used on the marionette, creating a more vivid and youthful figure, making the violence enacted on him all the more disturbing. I still believe Wolfson himself intended the word to refer to the puppet’s cartoonishly bold clothing and hair. Yet in the US, where Colored Sculpture was created and first exhibited, the word “colored” has a more racially charged meaning, as Ajay Kurian points out. In light of this, I must acknowldege that whilst I am able to evaluate the impact of Colored Sculpture’s use of pain in the abstract to delve into how the viewer processes violence, I also understand the valid objections raised to the work by American critics and viewers, where creating an abstract case of violence is far more difficult in the fraught racial climate.
Whilst it has been the word “colored” that has provoked the greatest discussion, I found the other word of the title far more interesting. Observing such a work raises the question of how to categorise this work. From the title, one would assume that the work is a sculpture, despite its movement. This in itself is nothing new. Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures from the 1920’s onwards set a precedent for sculpture to change shape in response to its surroundings. Rauschenberg developed this concept of moving sculpture, collaborating with engineers between 1968 and 1971 to create Mud Muse, a sculpture that responds to the sounds around it in order to generate a sequence of bubbles in a large tub of wet clay.
Mud Muse came at a time when technological developments were starting to enable sculpture to move beyond a fixed, pre-set form to respond to its environment and viewer moment by moment. Taken to its logical conclusion, this development in sculpture led to installation art, with artists such as Carsten Höller creating works that rely on the specific site they are located in and on the experiences of the viewer. As such, one could call Colored Sculpture a work of installation art or reactive sculpture. It is certainly true that Wolfson has his puppet interact with viewers through facial recognition that reacts to the audience in the room at that very moment.
However, I would argue that the impact that Colored Sculpture has on the viewer comes from the fact that it feels intenseley real. As Alexandra Schwartz writes in The New Yorker, “the troubling veneer of realness [in Wolfson’s work] is its aim”. Whilst we are never duped into believing that the marionette is a real child, Wolfson has done much to elevate the puppet from a still object into something that has some semblance of life in it. The doll, regardless of how it reacts in a specific moment (this is only seen through its eyes anyway) consistently feels choreographed, being moved in a way that animates it. Between each onslaught of battery, the doll lies, either suspended in the air or prostrate on the platform. Yet even in these moments, it resembles a real human. After all, would a human not collapse, broken to the ground after receiving the battery that Wolfson enacts upon the doll?
As he said in an interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, he sees Colored Sculpture as “real abuse — not a simulation”. One feels that had he been able to, Wolfson would have prefferred to use a real performer. Ethically, this is of course out of the question, especially if the performer was to be a child. Practically, the sheer extent of violence that the doll faces would also have proved a challenge for any human to endure. How then, to make a work that can get as close to real violence as possible? Wolfson was forced to compromise in realising his idea of violence: either reduce the scale of the violence in the work to allow a human performer to take part in it or keep the original idea of the work but substitute the human performer with an inanimate stand-in.
Wolfson chose to go with the latter but has tried to recreate the role of the performer as far as possible, in a manner that transcends the definition of sculpture or installation art. The doll seems to breathe when it swings limply in a moment of respite. Its eyes meet the viewer’s, eliciting a mix of pity and fear. Being thrown across the space from one side to the other by its limbs, the rest of the doll’s body merely follows. The chains serve as abstracted hands, grabbing and manipulating the child’s body, they do not simply pull and push in a heavy, industrial manner. As such the body reacts like a body would when it comes into contact with another body.
Wolfson’s work, when evaluated on a purely technical level, is ultimately not a performance — how could it be when nobody performs in it? But its impact on the viewer can only be explained by placing it within the sphere of performance art. To wince when the doll is dropped onto the floor, suffocated by the clatter of taut chains over its face, to look away when the too-familiar rattle is heard after a long silence, these are responses that an installation or sculpture would struggle to elicit. Wolfson would like us not change our reaction to the work if it was to be a human shackled to those chains and, to an extent, he has succeeded at this. The doll has been given all that it can be given to make it a performer: responding organically with its eyes, being moved as though by a human, and being choreographed to have moments of respite which it treats the way a human would. All that it lacks is flesh and blood (and he very clearly has tried not to mimic this, as seen in the doll’s outsize proportions and basic colouring) but this is enough to stop the attempted illusion from succeeding.
Remarkably, Wolfson has come eerily close to capturing the essence of the human body in a work, bypassing actual humans to do so. Were he able to achieve this, Colored Sculpture would be yet more remarkable in being a performer-less piece of performance art. As it stands, it serves to remind us of the quintisential physicality of the human body that to date, have been irreproducible.