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  • Mar 11, 2020

Artist Boasts NGA Commission Will Allow Simulations of Sexual Assault

(Left) JORDAN WOLFSON’s work,

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra has spent nearly USD 5 million of public money on an artwork that, according to the artist, will allow audience members to simulate acts of sexual violence. The commission, provisionally titled The Cube (2017– ), and due to be exhibited in 2021, is by the New York- and Los Angeles-based artist Jordan Wolfson. The artist is known for his sensationalist works that contain brutal depictions of violence, overt misogyny, barely masked forms of race-baiting, and deliberate toying with anti-Semitic tropes alongside references to Jewish history, often together in deliberately provocative combinations.

The artist’s words and details of The Cube and its acquisition by the NGA were revealed in a profile of the artist in the March 16 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Wolfson told reporter Dana Goodyear that his project is an animatronic sculpture that can “play its own body like an instrument” and can “rape the floor.” Wolfson then allegedly demonstrated the sculpture’s actions by pantomiming having sex with the author’s parked car on a street in Los Angeles.

ArtAsiaPacific contacted the NGA to confirm the artist’s description of the project. A spokesperson for the museum said: “The National Gallery of Australia doesn’t condone any form of violence. The work is still in production and a year away from being completed. We look forward to sharing more information then.” Goodyear describes seeing a drawing of The Cube as an “a box with articulated arms and hands, suspended by a length of chain from a robotic arm used in car manufacturing.”

The NGA spokesperson also told AAP that the nearly USD 5 million cost of the commission does not represent the museum’s entire annual acquisition budget, contrary to The New Yorker’s claims. The Cube was acquired during the 2019–20 financial year, and according to the NGA’s budget, AUD 16.73 million (USD 10.88 million) was the amount appropriated for the purchase of “new or replacement heritage and cultural assets.” The NGA spokesperson confirmed this figure with the museum’s financial department.

The NGA’s director Nick Mitzevich, according to The New Yorker, believes people will travel to Canberra in order to experience an artwork that can “point at the audience members’ genitals.” Mitzevich was also quoted as saying: “There is a sense of pilgrimage [in going to Canberra] . . . Jordan’s work will help enhance that idea that you’ve come to see something extraordinary.”

The NGA’s website describes Wolfson as “one of the most radical artists working with new technologies today. His work provokes a range of emotions, from amusement to fear and disgust.” Indeed, audiences, along with the Swiss mega-gallerist David Zwirner and London’s Sadie Coles alike have been drawn toward Wolfson’s cynical and toxic manipulations of racist and sexist tropes, as well as his employment of sophisticated animation technologies. In 2014, David Zwirner Gallery presented Wolfson’s Female Figure (2014) in New York, a dirt-besmirched, blonde-haired animatronic female mannequin dressed in white boots and lingerie (resembling the character Holli Would in the 1991 animated film Cool World), with a ghoulish mask; it is positioned with a metal pole bolted through the chest in front of a mirror, and delivers a monologue followed by a dance when viewers approach. Wolfson’s next exhibition at the gallery was a grotesque work laced with references to the historic lynching of African-Americans, bearing the dog-whistling title Colored Sculpture (2016). Comprised of a cartoonish red-headed boy (dressed like Huckleberry Finn), the figure is suspended in the air by chains, and dropped and dragged on the floor to a recording of Percy Sledge’s 1966 single When a Man Loves a Woman, while it looks at the audience and announces violating acts it will do to them. London’s Tate Modern later acquired this work in 2018. The artist’s current exhibition, concurrently on view at David Zwirner in Paris and Sadie Coles HQ in London, is titled “Artists Friends Racists.”

Wolfson’s profile has been on the rise in Australia. In Hobart, the Dark Mofo festival, sponsored by David Walsh of the Museum of Old and New Art, showed the artist’s Real Violence (2017), originally made for the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York. A two-minute-long virtual-reality animation, the work features him beating a man into a bloody pulp with a baseball bat accompanied by Hebrew blessings sung during Hanukkah. Many critics view works like these by Wolfson as a reflection of the violence found in virtual video games or online chat forums like 8chan, where far-right and white-supremacist ideologies are intermixed with subcultural humor and fantasies of violence. Admirers of Wolfson’s works believe that the adverse reactions that many people have to his work are part of their meaning and appeal. Despite criticism from other quarters, Wolfson regularly rejects the moralizing, or “virtue signalling,” done by artists, and the ethical policing of artworks by critics or people in the art world. He is quoted in a Zwirner-produced podcast as saying “I always felt that transgression led to transformation.”

However, The New Yorker suggests that the art world that gave Wolfson a big platform for much of the last decade is growing wary. For example, he found no takers for The Cube at institutions in New York or California so he sought out museums abroad. Meanwhile, the NGA has spent substantial amounts of money on recent blockbuster contemporary artworks by international artists. In 2019, the Australian institution paid USD 1 million for a four-meter tall portrait in wax of the curator Francesco Bonami, created by Urs Fischer; the sculpture is a candle that melts away over the course of six months.

HG Masters is the deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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