“I was mostly just interested in the physicality of what I’d seen in the animatronic field, and I was also interested in making a sculpture that had the potential to be chronological or structural in the same way a video is. My hope is that the work dips in and out of spectacle.” 一 Jordan Wolfson
Beginning with the iconic Venus of Willendorf and her luscious curves, the Western art historical tradition has long associated the female body with consumption and objecthood. Now, in this modern age of technology and the #MeToo Movement, provocative American sculptor Jordan Wolfson’s hypersexualized animatronic figure currently on view at the Broad Museum deliberately challenges the viewer with its seemingly stereotypical depiction of women. Undoubtedly, this demeaning representation is bound to trigger consternation and spark debate. The artist is no stranger to this kind of controversy. His violent virtual reality-based installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial shocked and horrified both critics and visitors alike. While the Broad’s (Female Figure) is far tamer in comparison, it does effectively question the progress of gender equality in America and echo Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) in its subversion of the male gaze.
In countless celebrated paintings and sculptures across the ages, we witness the active masculine eye feasting on passive feminine flesh. This is not the case with Wolfson’s Broad installation. Although the artist presents this robotic woman as a heterosexual man’s idealized fantasy complete with cascading platinum hair, a corset top, and a sheer mini skirt, this figure stares back and objectifies the viewer with her own empowered glare. She also defies our expectations by donning a green witch’s mask. With its wrinkled forehead and hook-like nose, this disguise makes the woman appear resistant, mysterious, and multidimensional. Visitors may soon find themselves wanting to know more about this character as they notice alarming details like patches of dirt smeared all over her outfit and body.
Also disconcerting is a shimmering steel rod connecting her chest to an adjacent mirror. This stripper pole-inspired fixture skewers her. Like an umbilical cord or leash, this beam prevents her from ever leaving this one spot. It tethers her to this unfortunate reality and serves as a devastating reminder that she is forever attached to her sexual identity. Through her seven-minute routine rife with laughter, flirting, song, and dance, one can feel the figure try to physically and emotionally unshackle herself from this restraint. However, if she were a real woman, she would almost certainly bleed out.
Wolfson also offers this erotic sculpture a humanizing backstory through this eclectic monologue. Here she reveals a series of “secrets” about herself, including “I’d like to be a poet,” and “I’m gay.” Frustratingly, it is the artist’s male voice that reads these statements aloud. He speaks for her, therefore denying her a voice of her own.
With the astonishing advancement of computer technology in recent decades, robots and video game characters are now increasingly life-like. Looking to the future, it is easy to recognize that these artificially intelligent beings will soon become practically indistinguishable from real humans. Through (Female Figure), Wolfson implores the visitor to consider how we treat these digital figures. Here he draws the connection between the predicament of women and ubiquitous computerized assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri as both are expected to be subservient, flirty, pleasant, and helpful at all times. Independent filmmaker Spike Jones also explored this topic at length in his masterful 2013 sci-fi drama, Her. Set in the not too distant future, the movie follows a shy writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) as he falls in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. While Wolfson’s installation offers a much more sexualized take on the matter, both revel in this no man’s land between love and lust, between human and machine.
While naturalistic body movements are clearly the goal with this installation, the artist also asserts that his figure is still very much a machine. He leaves her robotic shoulder and finger joints plainly visible. However, even with all of these visual cues pointing to her cyborg nature, the viewer still somehow bonds with her and empathizes with her non-existent physical and emotional pain.
Through the figure’s undeniable suffering, the passive viewer feels overwhelming guilt as they take in this horrifying spectacle. Wolfson’s emphasis on theatricality and presentness in this piece points to renowned art critic Michael Fried’s seminal 1967 essay, “Art and Objecthood.” While Fried rejected these qualities in Minimalism, the artist here wholeheartedly espouses them, revealing their crucial importance in viewer reaction. Much like witnessing a Minimalist sculpture, the audience here is perplexed. Wolfson guides the visitor in asking themselves a series of questions, including “Is it art?”, “Is it an object?”, “Is she a machine?”, and “Is she human?”
Unable to help the young woman in her anguish, the visitor then confronts their complicity in this patriarchal order that systematically uses and abuses women. On top of this societal blame, the male-centric art world gets its fair share of criticism here as many artists have historically reduced women to objects of desire. Ironically, here Jordan Wolfson brings this issue to life through artificial intelligence. In (Female Figure), he also employs the language humanizes women through literal objectification, therefore using the language of the patriarchy against itself.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.