By Megan Mullarky
To enter a sculptural installation of Jordan Wolfson is comparable to accepting a dare. Subjecting oneself to the gaze of a robotic figure, one which grotesquely references human features and movements and yet at the same time makes actually being human seem ludicrous, the visitors must subject themselves to the formidable ridicule of the robot. The Howdy Doody/Huckleberry Finn robot doll in the first part of the two-segment exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, entitled Colored Sculpture, is dragged through the air by thick, metal chains from which his bodily shell is repeatedly dropped violently to the floor. With abnormally large, illuminated blue eyes mechanized by motion-tracking software, he is able to silently gaze directly in the face of viewers and perceive their expressions while only seconds later flopping bizarrely to the ground like a sadistic, overgrown puppet. In contrast, Female Figure is relatively stationary, a white-clad robotic female dancer who is in this case attached to the mirror via a moderately short, un-extendable pole. Yet as the music starts and her gaze begins to follow the visitors to her cavernous, white cube enclosure, it becomes clear that to be in her presence is a far from calm experience. This time, unlike Colored Sculpture, her position shifts only slightly, and as a result the direction of her gaze is not betrayed by her body language. Instead, it is only her eyes, partially hidden behind her green mask, which flit from face to face, suddenly catching the eye of an unsuspecting viewer.
In both such installations there is a certain element of terror. It is a common response, in fact, for visitors to state that they found the installation psychologically confronting, or even frightening. The performance of the large-headed and unattractively vibrant Colored Sculpture figure, in its eerily long silences spent staring into the eyes of particular viewers, blaring personal theme song “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and deafening collisions with the floor, is determinately artificial: the robot is programmed to complete this repeating loop of activities. It can be understood then, that the actual behavior of the robotic work cannot possibly play off of the movements or emotions of the viewer, despite Wolfon’s teasing of such intelligence instigated by the use of the motion-tracking software. This is, of course, equally true in Female Figure. As a result, the physical and emotional response to Wolfson’s sculpture are much more complex than can be reduced to a single sensation. What emerges, in fact, is a battle of dichotomies in which fear is countered by an innate attraction to the work, and what initially seemed ugly takes on a certain beauty through the ability of the works to intrude upon the emotional capacity of the visitor. Furthermore, the initial intrusiveness of the sculpture in its ability to robotically interact with the viewer is quickly countered by the acknowledgement that due to the pre-determined behavioral programming of the work, there is an innate psychological distance between viewer and object. In embodying something both ugly and beautiful, fascinating and confronting, intimate yet distant, the robotic sculptures take on a type of “funhouse” quality through which a distinctly entertaining experience emerges.
Interestingly enough, what manifests most often in the space is laughter, a response to the absurdity professed by the conflicting qualities of the works themselves. Entertainment, however, is not merely a light-hearted descriptor of a given situation; it also indicates a deeply philosophical aspect of the artwork in terms of its ludic qualities. The theorization of entertainment has played a major role in Dutch scholarship which was inspired, amongst others, by Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), who introduced the term “Homo Ludens” in 1938. Referring to the role of humor in everyday society, Huizinga believed that what may seem to be light-hearted ‘play’ is actually deeply fundamental to the progression of a given culture. This notion has been, in fact, applied to the interpretation of the work of Jean Tinguely, whose large-scale exhibition at the Stedelijk took recently place as well. Though Wolfson’s forcefully confrontational, robotic figures may at first seem to be a far cry from Tinguely’s largely stationary, romantic machines of 1960s counterculture, they are in fact related through the artistic urge towards the contrasting implementation of delicate, mechanical structures into violently mobilized artistic objects. Furthermore, they are equally indicative of the obvious parallels to be drawn between the two artists in terms of the correlation between machinery and humor in play-oriented artistic production. It is well-known, in fact, that Tinguely’s sculptures also elicited a great deal of laughter from their viewers during the iconic 1961 exhibition Bewogen beweging. Therefore, it supports the idea of a clear link between kinetic artworks and humor, one which serves to further compound the “funhouse” quality of Wolfson’s installations.
This relationship can be elucidated through the work of local art historian Janna Schoenberger (Amsterdam University College), whose publications have been often dedicated to the study of the ludic qualities of 1960s conceptual art in the Netherlands. In her 2016 essay “Jean Tinguely’s Cyclograveur: The Ludic-Anti-Machine of Bewogen beweging,” Schoenberger proposes an interpretation of humor and machinery following the explanation of French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1911 essay: “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic.” In this text, Bergson describes the way in which mechanical movement encourages laughter by using the example of a man tripping and falling. According to Bergson, the entertainment quality of this situation can be attributed to the distinctly inhuman aspects of the man, as his clumsy action indicates that he is momentarily void of human instinct and instead tumbles to his face like am inanimate object. What emerges here is the idea that machines, unlike humans, fundamentally lack the instinctual ability to adapt to danger or other stimuli, resulting in the paradox that their movements are autonomous yet nonetheless inanimate. Movement itself, in fact, a quality associated only with living beings, is perverted and made absurd through the lack of instinctual facilities, creating a mechanical product which can only be described as ridiculous, or even funny. This notion is particularly compelling in the case of machines with no obvious utilitarian purpose, such as mechanical sculptures, in which absurdity already plays a clear role, paving the way for full-fledged laughter.
So what about Wolfson’s sculptures? Colored Sculpture, it seems, literally is the man who falls flat on his face in Bergson’s example. Pounding against the floor yet nonetheless maintaining its eerie, wide-eyed grin, he is the man whose mechanical qualities are exposed through the humor of his instinct-less artificiality. Moreover, his only clear purpose as a machine is to repeatedly perform this ridiculous behavioral loop. Female Figure, however, is something of a different beast. As stated before, she seems almost calm in comparison to the first of the sculptural exhibitions. Her nearly entirely exposed body, white-clad in a scant garment associated with those worn by particularly daring pop singers, is largely naturalistic, rendered in the realistic contours of the human body far more accurately than her Howdy Doody counterpart. Her eyes, which flit from face to face beneath her witch-like green mask, are also not immediately apparent as robotic. We know that they are, of course, (we are here, after all, to view a robotic installation) but the machinery functioning in her artificial head has yet to be exposed, allowing for the momentary musing that perhaps she is not quite as false as she seems. When the music blares and she initiates her repetitive dance loop, her movements are almost too fluid, too human. Most striking are her hands, whose delicate fingers are eerily supple, inviting the attraction of the captivated viewer. Yet the illusion is shattered when the artist’s male voice rings throughout the room in a fragmented, looped recording, now and then interrupted by a blaring Lady Gaga number, as Female Figure’s mouth moves along with the words. She is rendered in this single moment so clearly a machine, so clearly a sculpture meant to do with the bidding of the artist, so obviously void of instincts and improvisation. Suddenly, the work becomes humorous as the figure is transformed before our eyes from ‘She: the dancing woman in the mirror’ to ‘It: the man who falls on his face.’
Important to recognize, however, is that to describe the work of Wolfson and Tinguely as playfully entertaining is not to denigrate its status as an artwork. Art doesn’t have to be serious in order to be taken seriously. In fact, it is the intelligently staged whirl of contradictory emotions of attraction/repulsion and aversion/captivation which give way to the entertaining quality of the work, compounded by the intimate relationship between humor and mechanical art. The emergence of this entertainment quality, in this case, compels both the examination of one’s own psychological relationship to the object and equally allows for the potential of experimentation. Huizinga himself claimed that humor plays in integral role for society in that only through the investigation of the depths of human entertainment can culture properly progress through shared collective experience. Humor has the ability to bubble up unexpectedly in surprising ways, allowing us to question what is at stake when we glance curiously around the deafening room hosting Colored Sculpture’s red-headed robot and realize that ours is not the only laughter to be heard.