Colored Sculpture and Female Figure conjure the wreckage of past, present, and future. Both are time machines: this boy entangled in chains, smashing to the ground, yet with a will, an energy that seems self-motivated; this girl, with her super-smooth subtly spasming limbs and her eyes behind the mask, are congealed histories. On the body of each surfaces from the past the half-whispered, half-heard, mutated and mutilated legacy of Romanticism. Romanticism’s puppets, its beautiful feminine automata, philosophies of will and direction, terror at mechanization and delight in the uncanny, its fascination with the soulless and the spirited, with artifice and authenticity, surface and depth, subject and object, grace and gravity, its recognition of ambivalence, of opposites charging each other in a force field – all this plays here in these hard bodies that speak of softness.
The falling boy, coloured sculpture, named in honour of Antiquity’s childlike innocent forms that dazzled with colour before the wear and tear and misunderstandings set in, the boy is one who bashes on the ground but never rests there, always rises again and does not need the floor for repose from its effort, does not need to be heaved down like a person and injured or humiliated. As in the cartoons, he gets hit down, but he will get up again, and again, like history never happened. He moves gracefully – or he moves like a force of nature, but never artfully, self-consciously. Always as it must be, not as it could be. Female Figure cannot raise her legs. These hang off her body, obeying motoric force. No other affected considerations, no wily efforts to charm, she is a product of physics, like Kleist’s Marionette of 1804. Like Hoffmann’s Olympia.
The puppets’ eyes – seeing and unseeing – demand our eyes meet them. The female dancer locking on her own eyes in the mirror, if there is no one else to stare down makes the viewer never more so a viewer, conscious of looking and being looked at. Eyes – is there anything more vexed for Romantics – these windows to the soul, these things that lovers gaze into, these vectors to selfhood and otherness and master-slavish questions of recognition, these organs that soak up the sublime, and cannot turn away, as when Kleist saw Caspar David Friedrich’s The Monk by the Sea and said ‘it is as if one’s eyelids had been cut away’.
The ideal of mad desire, notes Walter Benjamin, is the doll, or, puppet, or as Benjamin’s corrects himself, ‘should that rather be: the corpse?’ Desire fixates on the indifferent object into whose ear the lover babbles the great, canonical confession, ‘If I love you, what do you care’. Female Figure is desire as death. That is almost too obvious. This figure, her white skein of dress dirtied, her Medusa eyes, her pointed teeth that would rip out eyes, her – his – talk of death, her endless timeless repetitions of her gestures, trapped in one spot, endlessly on the punishing treadmill, her sex is proximate to horror. Female Figure’s blonde hair is, like the music, a fatal track. In Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, I am I only in the eyes of another. But that I outside of me which recognises me threatens in confirming me also to destroy me. These are looks of love and death.
There is a nearer past too, which is that of US popular culture, be it Howdy Doody or the pop icon. Across the screens that are eyes flicker any and all things, all that has ever been, can flicker across this screen, has shimmered across our screens, including those that are our eyes. Such absorption and radiance is the penchant of post-Internet art. There are in the body of Colored Sculpture elements of Huckleberry Finn, Alfred E. Neuman, and Howdy Doody. Dumb boys, without worries, their bodies and souls marked by the power of the Nation – Huckleberry simply is America, or at least the South, nasty and nice, and Mad Magazine’s mascot, Alfred E. Neumann is a drifting icon of US commercial culture, and Howdy Doody had 48 freckles on his face, one for each state of the union in the US 1950s. Dead time, old labour turned general intellect, compressed in this body. Every pop icon, every girl that ever took a selfie, every s’lebrity in the other. And don’t we just how skin deep their beauty is, how contrived and co strutted and doesn’t Female Figure let us stare that reality in the face. It is an old truth here ….we are and have long been bewitched.
Future debris sparkles too in the figures’ eyes, which are screens. The eyes, screen eyes, lure us into the future world, which is one of readable surfaces. Readable that is by robots, machines of calculation that spend their time monitoring, tracking, logging, recognising, registering, comparing. A circuit between robot eyes and augmented colourful, information forms of Virtual Reality liquid crystal city life cast by the descendants of Google Glass, HoloLens, Project Morpheus, Oculus Rift – oculus – the eye like opening, the eye like window onto the world, that is now a glass and a lively commune of liquid crystal impulses. These robots that see through lcd lead us to a future already emergent of affective computing. Colored Sculpture has a mouth that does not move, a rictus grin. How might that be read by the literate machinery, in an epoch when the smile, the laugh, the gaze, the signs of emotional states are becoming operative in new ways. The affective signals of the human are turned into active elements, providing data, in an infernal and diabolical loop, a hellish development in digital bio-political management, where such a thing exists as ‘emotional labour’.
Female Figure does not smile. She mutters like a mad woman, or man, lost in her own contemplation, were it not for her capacity to detect, to pull a little part of her out of self-reverie, out of self-contemplation for image-management, out of that self and into a monitoring of the other, of the audience, into a making sure that it is watching, because whatever their emotional state, it is the presence of the devotees – props – that counts. This future image shows us that the fans, the audience, are interchangeable. This dancing, fleet, amazing, inexhaustible body, which never puts a foot wrong, speaks of our redundancy, of sexbots, the end of women, of human endings, and casts us, if we are lucky, into a world of Universal Basic Incomes and living only as a consumer, a lubricant of the system that must keep on functioning at all costs.
The present in the artworks is their exact seguing with available technologies, their appeal to an art market that knows about low and high, what looks and sounds good as an upload on social media, the gimmickier the better, the more lookable the shamefulness the more compelling. Crushed into the figures is a present emergent under the disquieting glow of contemporary populist demagoguery. In our world, violence is the currency freely flowing outwards and inwards, when hitting oneself and being hit – spite and pain – are indistinguishable and interminable. To become an automaton, is to become the thing that will displace you, but it is also to make oneself an indifferent thing, for protection, even if get battered, even if smudged and smeared with dirt.
‘I had this notion that she had escaped from something relatively unscathed, without cuts or bruises – just dirty.’ So said Jordan Wolfson of Female Figure. What did she escape from? What is it that threatens, but is not yet fatal? Could we too get away with it, harden ourselves against it, that unspecified it, which, in its US guise at least, is surely all that the Wolfson aesthetic screams: the it that is brash, pop, nasty, sarky, shaming, hot, absurd, clichéd, over-stimulated, spiteful, troubled, prankish, postironic, alpha male, beta cuck. This is now. This is America. This is Europe. And what we see before us, these dolls, this Mr and Mrs America, do not propose to ask how human they are and more to ask how robotic we are, now. Played by our desires and our devices. We are less and less. We are losing. Losing our jobs. Losing our security. Losing our rights. Losing our countries and our continents. Losing our planet. Losing our mind. Losing our solidarity. Losing our humanity. Losing our nature. Losing all those bearings that hold us on this Earth and orient us. These puppets, robots, avatars, one clamped to the spot by a lap dancing pole that has become integral, one hanging from clanking shackles that pull it up like a bird and pour down after him like metal water, these two play out, as a dance, that we, we watchers, we buyers, we new, old and of now humans, have everything to lose but our chains.
© Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam