Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Jordan Wolfson's (Female Figure), 2014

The Female Figure itself is scantily clad in a white bustier and diaphanous miniskirt, tilted onto its tip-toes by knee-high "stripper boots", its robotic arms painted white to mimic elbow-length gloves.  A cascade of beautiful blonde hair rains down its back and rocks rhythmically as the figure gyrates its luscious hips.  But the purity of the figure is smudged with dark dirt.  It dances sexily to slowed, distorted pop tunes in front of a large mirror in the middle of a great blank room.  If you bother to look up into the figure's face, meet its eyes in the reflection of the mirror, you'll be confronted by a hideous green witch-mask over too-human eyes.  Eyes that gaze back at you as it whispers in the deep, masculine voice of the artist: Jordan Wolfson.

Widely publicized as "The Lady Gaga Robot" or "The Creepiest Robot Ever" in click-bait articles from websites like Buzzfeed to iO9, Jordan Wolfson's installation at the David Zwirner Gallery seemed destined to captivate the internet's attention from the get-go.  Designed in collaboration with Spectral Motion, a special-effects studio in Los Angeles, (Female Figure), 2014 is the perfect cocktail of sexuality, ugliness, uncanny valley weirdness, and social confrontation.

The art installation was not merely an unbelievably life-like animatronic doll in a blank white room, it also included a film about the figure, and a performance aspect: the robot's dance.  A metal pole extended out from the mirror, attaching to the center of the figure, just below the breasts.  This held the life-sized figure up and allowed it to dance and whisper for hours on end.  It also connected the robot to the machinery that controlled its seven-minute, variable choreography, and the facial-recognition software that allowed it to make eye contact with gallery-goers.

If you had the fortune to experience (Female Figure), 2014, you were likely led into the room by yourself, or with two to five other individuals.  The small size of the viewing party combined with the narrow, dim passage that they had to pass through to get to the room, created a sense of formality as well as foreboding.  Once inside the room, viewers would come upon the robot standing at attention on its platform heels, or perhaps dancing gracefully.

The robot included several features designed to confront and discomfort the viewer.  A motion sensor allowed it to detect when other people entered or left the room.  Finding itself no longer alone, the robot would quietly watch any new visitors until they left.  If a viewer stood too closely to the robot, its facial-recognition software would seek out their face, and stare deeply into the viewer's eyes.

The figure was also programmed to murmur phrases recorded in Wolfson's deep voice, its animatronic jaw wagging with weird accuracy.  In fact, the movement of the figure was so life-like that it succeeded in its attempts at sexual titillation (if you avoided the face, of course).  As Lady Gaga's "Applause", Paul Simon's "Graceland", and a slowed version of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" played, the figure would wiggle and squat with Bob Fosse lascivity.  Its expensive plastic fingers would flutter at the end of graceful dancer's wrists.

Altogether, the installation was designed to examine the effect of gaze in our society (among other themes such as humanity, technology, and mirrors qua examining identity).  Specifically, the installation confronts the male gaze, of which so much social theory and commentary has been written.  The male gaze that objectifies women into sexual objects, reducing them to their attractiveness: into commodities carefully calculated to be consumed through the eyes of anonymous people who have the liberty to be actual people, and not plastic things.

But in (Female Figure), 2014 the sexualized object gazes back.  The figure isn't human, but it manages to strike at the discomfort of breaking social conventions.  Don't make eye contact.  Don't stare, robot.  Certainly don't stare at strangers, robot!  And ABSOLUTELY don't stare at the people staring at you, especially with such an ugly face and such lively eyes.

In less pretentious words: (Female Figure), 2014 is awesome because it tempts you to oogle it, and then makes you feel super-weird for doing so.  In fact, it doesn't just stop at trying to embarrass you- it tries to terrify you.

Below I've linked two videos: one that gives you a broader view of the figure, and a second that Wolfson produced himself, full of uncomfortable close-ups.


However, the scariest thing about (Female Figure), 2014 is not its uncanniness, and not the juxtaposition between its pop-sexuality and its foulness.  The scariest thing about the female figure is that it they didn't turn it off.  The figure isn't just oriented to dance in the mirror for artistic reasons about viewership.  It also faced the mirror so that when left alone, it could gaze at itself.  The program running it wouldn't shut down when visitors left the room.  If left by itself, the robot would find the only face left in the room: its own.

And so it would gaze deep into its own eyes, dancing and whispering to itself in the empty, blank room.    

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-J. J. Roye

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