Creepy-Meets-Sexy Animatronic Dancer Wows Visitors at New York Gallery

Jordan Wolfson Female Figure - H 2014
Courtesy the Artist

Jordan Wolfson Female Figure - H 2014

Artist Jordan Wolfson has unveiled a gyrating robotic sculpture -- dressed in a negligee, stiletto boots and witch mask -- at the David Zwirner Gallery.

In a side room of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, select viewers can now enjoy a private dance, courtesy of the artist Jordan Wolfson, whose first exhibition at the gallery opened during Armory Week (March 4 to 9).

The “dancer,” a tousled blonde in a diaphanous white negligee and knee-high stiletto boots, stands before a mirror, a garish witch mask covering half her face and scuffs and smudges all along her body. When the music kicks in, she pounds her fists to the sonic strobe of Lady Gaga’s “Applause,” then swivels her hips to a slow, slurred version of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” As she performs, she watches viewers watching her, fixing them with her immaculately made-up eyes in the mirror. When the music cuts off, the figure opens her mouth to speak (“My mother's dead. My father's dead. I'm gay. I'd like to be a poet. This is my house.”), but it is Wolfson’s distinct voice that emerges from behind her crimson lips and sharp, pointy teeth. Reviews have called it "creepy," "terrifying" and "haunting."

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This dancer -- better known as (Female figure), 2014 -- is entirely animatronic, the latest work in Wolfson’s continuing flirtation with “the new,” as he puts it. (Describing the impetus behind the 2011 CGI video, Animation, masks, the artist insisted: “I wanted to make something as contemporary as Shrek.”) The genesis for his latest work began in December 2012. Wolfson was contemplating another animation, this time about women (or, more precisely, “about the experience I get when I look at a woman’s body,”), when he and his good friend and fellow artist Alex Israel took a fateful visit to Disney World’s Epcot Center.

“Originally I was thinking of making a cartoon of this female figure dancing and her body elastically changing,” Wolfson explains, before recounting how he was struck by “the uncanny physicality” of the park’s animatronics. “I get one big idea a year,” Wolfson confesses. “This was it.”

Wolfson reached out to Spectral Motion, a special effects, prosthetics and robotics firm from Glendale, Calif. There the artist was introduced to Mark Setrakian, an animatronics specialist and puppeteer who had worked on the Men in Black and Hellboy franchises. In close collaboration with Wolfson, Setrakian would build and program the dancer, working almost entirely from scratch. “There’s never been anything like this in a movie,” Setrakian admits. “In the movies, you make something that works to camera, in the context of footage that will be edited. With this, you’re editing it by how you walk around and experience it.”

Wolfson asked Setrakian to base the animatron’s movements on videos of dancing by Lindsey Blaufarb and Craig Holloman, an L.A.-based duo who have choreographed for singers (Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, and Cee Lo Green), commercials (iPod and Old Navy) and shows (American Idol and The X Factor).

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The six-minute dancer experience allows for variation, as sensors trigger seemingly unplanned motions (such as when the animatron turns her head to watch viewers leave and enter the room). “I have a lot of previous work puppeteering, but in this case, this isn’t quite like a puppet,” Setrakian laughs. “I’ll be sitting in here working and I’ll realize she’s just staring at me.”

While the technology may be at the top of the field, Wolfson is clear that it is all in service to what he describes as “witnessing culture.” It could be tempting to delve into the piece on a deeper, Freudian level, but the artist himself resists that kind of read. “I make an effort not to analyze myself,” Wolfson explains. “I try to work intuitively. I see myself as a kind of cultural witness -- but a witness, not the judge. If something comes out of me or there’s something I’m attracted to, I don’t judge myself.”

The animatron is not the only witness in the show; Wolfson has developed a new series of what he calls “inkjet sculptures,” wall-mounted works covered in bumper stickers with nonsensical, quasi-incendiary phrases like “Crippled Sex,” “Dying Cat” and “Love Spells a Liar’s Hell.” The back of the gallery has been converted to a soft-padded video room, screening the 14-minute video, Raspberry Poser, 2012. The piece speaks to the sanitization of sex and death, splicing scenes of an animated red-haired menace, sawing open his belly on the sidewalks of live-action Spring Street; the artist himself, transformed into a scull-shaven punk, lurking in the parks of Paris (where he pauses for a salad after wagging his bare ass in the air); computer-generated HIV viruses, bouncing like nefarious Popples through the “safe” havens of children’s bedrooms and upscale kitchen stores; and an empty condom conducting a willowy dance to Mazzy Star’s equally willowy anthem “Fade Into You,” in the air above SoHo, a scene that sooner recalls American Beauty’s plastic bag.

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“It’s not about making something that’s safe to look at,” Wolfson declares. “But it’s also not about antagonizing the viewer or being smarter than the viewer. This is not art about art, it’s about being in the world.” This project has helped the artist to concentrate on his own sense of being in the world, renewing his focus on the work. “Things happen fast when you give up fear and doubt,” the artist admits. “I have no time to doubt myself, I just have to do it the way I see it.”

“Jordan Wolfson” is on view through April 19 at David Zwirner Gallery in New York.