This month, Europeans can see for themselves what the fuss over the US artist Jordan Wolfson is all about. The centrepiece of Wolfson’s exhibition, which has just opened at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum (until 29 January), is a new robotic marionette—a wild, gap-toothed Howdy Doody lookalike that alternately swings through the space and violently careens or crashes onto the floor. In February, this trickster will be replaced by Wolfson’s 2014 shocker: an ugly-sexy robotic woman who puts on a mesmerising show by issuing orders, gyrating and making intense eye contact.
According to the Stedelijk website, “both presentations revolve around Wolfson’s spectacular animatronic creations: robotic human figures, seductive yet repulsive, which interact with the viewer using motion-sensor technology”.
The statement runs long but it never identifies, not even in the fine print, the co-creator of these must-see works. Nor do earlier press releases from Wolfson’s gallerist David Zwirner, who helped front the sizeable production costs.
The artist’s unsung collaborator is Spectral Motion, a Hollywood special-effects studio that specialises in building robotic—as opposed to digital—monsters and zombies for Hollywood movies. It has created “hellhounds” for Hellboy, fighting machines for Robot Combat League and a wildly expressive troll for Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters.
Based in Glendale, the studio is so important to Wolfson that he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2013 to be closer to its experts. Not only did the engineering team programme his creatures to create their most startling moves, but they also helped to shape the look and feel—the very aesthetic—of the work.
Not just assistants
In the case of the 2014 sex doll, which took nine months to create, lead engineer Mark Setrakian gave her eye-tracking software, 48 different motors and a vacant sexpot look, loosely modelling her on the Holli Would character from the movie Cool World. The team even nicknamed her Holli before she acquired the more canonical-sounding name Female Figure.
This is not a case of an artist hiring assistants to paint hundreds of spots on canvas or sending a maquette off to a foundry. There is no work of art to speak of until the artist and studio begin working together. The genius of animatronic sculpture depends on lifelike movement—but the real geniuses who bring the sculptures to life barely get any credit. So why not? With very few exceptions—the Broad’s website is one—most museum and gallery statements and, for that matter, interviews and reviews fail to identify the studio, let alone describe its contribution. So why is this?
Of course, there is a long history of visual artists downplaying their debt to Hollywood creatives, and vice versa. But this particular oversight is not just restricted to Wolfson, who in my experience mentions the studio without fully acknowledging his dependence on it.
It has the makings of a larger art market cover-up. David Zwirner’s decision not to publicise the studio’s role surely helps to ensure that these works of art seem more original or valuable than the latest Hollywood zombies. The art press tends not to find technology as sexy as the story of the boy-genius artist wrestling with his demons. And most collectors don’t seem to care.
They might even assume that this is just standard operating practice for conceptual art. But this is not old-school conceptual art. It is a new breed of kinetic sculpture that gets its punch from an engineer’s ability to transform an inert sculptural object into an aggressive subject.
The same kind of erasure happened recently when Kanye West commandeered Los Angeles’s Blum & Poe gallery one weekend to debut Famous, a silicone sculpture of West, Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, Donald Trump and Bill Cosby in the ultimate TMZ moment: naked and in bed together. The mere whisper that this work was being offered for sale in the vicinity of $4m set off a storm of press. Yet no articles ascertained who gave the sculpture life—each figure appeared to breathe—beyond nodding to the involvement of Donda, West’s secretive creative company. Do they really have an animatronics expert on staff? Mentioning Donda in this case served to deflect proper credit instead of giving it.
We also tend to short-change the collaborators on Paul McCarthy’s sex machines, such as his raucous Train, Mechanical (2003-09), a sculpture of two George W. Bush figures penetrating pigs. Fortunately, the video series Art21 interviewed Jon Dawe, the mechanical designer who worked for McCarthy’s studio for nearly ten years and helped to create the porcine political satire.
If only there were more transparency from Wolfson’s dealer and the curators. It’s not too late for the Stedelijk. It could acknowledge Spectral Motion’s role online or in exhibition materials. Let visitors know: Wolfson’s monsters have Hollywood in their DNA and zombies in their family tree.
The Stedelijk’s response
“Jordan Wolfson’s animatronics are fabricated with the expertise of a team of state-of-the art special-effects technicians. In his animatronic sculptures, Wolfson is combining existing techniques. There is no inventing or reinventing of technologies. Thus the involvement of the experts in his view is a technical thing. There is no role of the technicians in the artistic process, which is entirely based on Wolfson’s vision. Just as in the case of a technically complex video installation where the artist is assisted by audiovisual technicians, it is not common practice to mention them on the gallery walls. Wolfson, however, does credit the special-effects technicians in his publications, such as exhibition catalogues.”
• Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, co-curator with Beatrix Ruf of Jordan Wolfson: Manic/Love and Truth/Love at the Stedelijk