Jordan Wolfson: Riverboat song at David Zwirner
May 2 to June 30, 2018
533 West 19th Street, New York, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York CIty, www.davidzwirner.com
Very loud music greets visitors to David Zwirner’s 19th Street space. The white cube gallery has been transformed with soft, lilac carpeting and acoustic panels. These serve to dampen a multitude of sounds that fluctuate during Jordan Wolfson’s 8’24” video, Riverboat song (2017-2018). There’s also a sense of comfort in these gentle colors and textures – elegant features that contrast with the disconcerting informality of what comes next: the exposed wires and weights on the back of sixteen screens aligned in a massive four-by-four grid. The doorway to the gallery frames this rear view, shielding the projection. This installation establishes power dynamics that soon become evident in the video itself: the space comforts, but the arrangement controls, forcing visitors up against the back wall (the furthest distance possible from the exit), caught between the screen and two large speakers. You feel small, particularly if, as this viewer chose to, you sit down, sandwiched between these mammoth screens and the wall.
The content of Riverboat song intensifies this juxtaposition of comfort and control. The piece is a montage, for the most part featuring a cast of animated characters. There are two “gay” dressed and acting horses, a naked crocodile, three grunge-styled rats, a Huckleberry Finn meets Alfred E. Neuman boy, and a witch. The boy is familiar from Wolfson’s earlier work, Colored sculpture (2016). Riverboat song opens with a “down the rabbit hole” moment in which the boy sinks into a giant teacup. This is followed by a series of vignettes: Finn being chopped up by the witch, Finn dancing seductively in Louboutins to Iggy Azalea’s “Work” (2014), the crocodile dancing, the rodents smoking on an airplane, all of the characters sharing pieces of a monologue narrated by Wolfson, Finn jumping in front of a mirror, more smoking rodents, and finally Finn splashing around in his own golden shower. The video closes with an amalgam of YouTube clips of robots, sensually dancing women, violent video games, and one man mercilessly beating another (this last was the inspiration for Wolfson’s notorious 2017 Whitney Biennial VR piece, Real violence).
Riverboat song is permeated by sexual aggression. Pinned up against the wall, I was both surprised and transfixed – perhaps most by the monologue section of the video, which lasted for about a quarter of the piece. This was the “scene” that most forcefully situated the piece within Wolfson’s recent body of work. The monologue – spread between Wolfson’s animated cast, though predominantly spoken by a pantsless Finn – is about a relationship in which one partner manipulates the other for personal gain. The male voice (Wolfson’s) talks about “you” doing things for him: cleaning, cooking, sexual favors, and staying with him despite his emotional manipulation because of a twisted sense of obligation that leaves “you” completely under his control. While the “you” in the monologue is never specified as female, and could just as easily be male, I read it as very heteronormative – possibly as a woman myself, possibly due to the current Me Too movement bringing attention to female harassment and assault. The casual aggression in the tone of the monologue, both in Wolfson’s inflection and the blasé positions of various characters (penis in hand, in the bathtub, over brunch), matched the riveting and gut-wrenching spectatorship of Real violence, and the emotional instability of Colored sculpture (tellingly set to “When a Man Loves a Woman”). At first, the off-hand and personal tone of this monologue creates the illusion of lovingness, although this soon melts into distinctive domination, much like the discomfort that emerges out of the initial safe feeling of the installation.
Finn takes a distinct pleasure in himself throughout the video – clearly aroused by his talk of supremacy in the monologue, and later luxuriating in his own urine. He splashes around so much it becomes comical as well as uncomfortably voyeuristic, due the length of the clip. However, even in this moment I am so transfixed as to be unable to simply stand up and walk out, leaving the final, over-the-top clip unviewed. Perhaps this is due to innate human curiosity and the need to know what happens next, or maybe something about the anthropomorphism of the characters results in an uncanny feeling of being watched, and thus somehow known or possessed. For whatever reason, I am strangely comfortable on this carpet, back against the wall, and watch Riverboat song again and again.