Flirting with Female Figure

Pushing the Palette Knife
An eerie confrontation.
An eerie confrontation. // Joshua Abelow

Have you ever made an appointment to see a robot? Well, I have and I highly recommend it. Though beforehand, I felt rather scandalous as I shuffled nervously into the mirrored room of the David Zwirner Gallery, not quite knowing what to expect.

I was greeted by New York sculptor Jordan Wolfson’s “Female figure” — a tall, blonde animatronic woman wearing a witch mask, and singing and dancing wildly.

She is somewhere between woman, monster and machine. From the back, she looks un-human, but not unattractive. She is attached to a mirror by a large metal pole, fastened on the other end to her body, bisecting her breasts — a sharp cut to her womanhood and a reminder that her body does not support itself. The witch mask, dark green and paired with forehead wart, hooked nose, and hawk-like eyes, covers the majority of her face. Peaking out from just below the end of her beak, soft pink lips allude to the delicate face that could lie below the mask, if she were a real person. Yet, Wolfson leaves the viewer unsure of what is beneath — either wiring or more fake skin, just dyed and treated to a more flattering and feminine quality.

She wears a white strapless leotard with a short transparent skirt that barely grazes her bottom. Tall, heeled white boots end several inches above her knees and matching long white metallic gloves comprise most of her arms past the elbows. Nailed into this white metal, her skin layers over the gloves and takes on an armor-like quality. Finally, around her neck, she wears a thick white choker.

All of her joints are visibly mechanical. She is not pretending to be a real person, but the grace of her movement makes her closer to erotic dancer than robot. She eerily looks at herself in the mirror as she dances, as if keeping the beat only by perceiving her pulsing hands and hips. The thumping of dubstep, electronic and pop music seems to encourage her. Remarkably, nothing she does looks programmed.

In between thrusting her body back and forth, she stops abruptly to offer musings that one might be able to categorize as “autobiographical information.” Adding further surprise to the already alarming creature, her voice is deep and male. In one memorable proclamation, she twists her hands through the air above her head, announcing, “I don’t believe in God. My mother is dead. My father is dead. I’m gay. I’d like to be a poet. This is my house.”

The animatronic woman — and Wolfson through her — aims to shock. Her entire being stands at the intersection of repulsive and suggestive. Wolfson names the work, “Female figure,” which — along with her voluptuous body — make her woman. Yet, she is neither fully female nor fully figure. She is instead somewhere between a rough machine with visible joints and a sexy dancer. Yet, the work does comment on both definitions of the phrase “female figure” — bodily form and a woman in the public sphere.

Wolfson’s work makes a claim about the sexualization of the female body for popular consumption by placing a both erotic and monstrous platinum blonde in a room full of mirrors that she calls her “home.” We cannot see her front unless we look into the mirror she faces, ourselves. Perhaps the reflection that we are staring into — of that disturbing witch mask — is our own reflection. There is a certain grotesqueness to us coming to see this curvaceous blonde dance from behind. Videos and pictures are allowed in the room, but it is nearly impossible to capture the “Female figure” without appearing in the mirror in your own recording. Wolfson won’t let us forget that we are attracted to this tattered and freakish animatronic woman.

The sculpture also raises questions about feminine morals and what it means to be a “proper” woman. She says, “good morning mom … raised me well now here I am,” and “I’ll have sex with you but that’s not my goal.” But she also orders, “Close your eyes, close your eyes.” Her confusing proclamations raise questions — should she be embarrassed or should we? Which party is “badly raised”?

It’s difficult to get an appointment to see “Female figure,” but it’s easy to see her online. Wolfson has used all of the available recording technology to bring this perversion of performance art to anyone who wants to see it. Still, it’s not quite the same if you’re not there while she dances.

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