Jordan Wolfson: Body Sculpture

Published December 10, 2023
The NGA's pocket is picked by robot hands

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Jordan Wolfson’s Body Sculpture goes through an elaborate range of gestures in a half hour cycle, from the sexually suggestive to the suicidal. The National Gallery of Australia has invested $6.67 million in this work and waited five-and-a-half years for it to be delivered. Conscious of the magnitude of the gamble he has taken, NGA Director, Nick Mitzevich, tells us “Body Sculpture is a historic acquisition for the National Gallery, marking a milestone in contemporary art. As with other works in the national collection, it will continue to reverberate into the future.”

In the past Mitzevich has suggested the the piece is of comparable importance to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. At the media preview he fell back, time and again, on his favourite adjective: “extraordinary”. It’s a big rap for Wolfson, a 43-year-old New Yorker who has made an international reputation with large-scale animatronic sculptures and installations that dabble dangerously with sex and violence.

One moment from the exciting half hour sequence

So what exactly does the Australian taxpayer get for $6.67 million? Answer: a very large gizmo, 17.98 metres long, 4.29 metres high, with a depth of 11 metres. A rivetted metal cube is suspended on the end of a heavy chain, manipulated by a robotic device attached to a gantry. The cube itself spouts a pair of robot arms with which it caresses its surface; beats out a staccato, like a gorilla thumping its chest; makes the delicate gestures of a Thai dancer; flaps its hands like wings; wags a finger at the viewer; and forms a mock gun, which it points at itself.

The robot crane lifts and lowers the cube, dragging it from left to right and back again. At one stage it has a tantrum and begins bashing the chain against a metal column.

Unlike Wolfson’s two previous animatronic sculptures, Female Figure (2014) – a masked woman in a dance costume, and Colored Sculpture (2016) – a leering Pinocchio doll, the new work is as featureless as a hunk of industrial machinery. The metal cube becomes a surrogate body through the movements of the robot arms, inviting the spectator to identify with the sensations it mimics.

It’s by no means obvious what’s going on. After the cube rubs its ‘chest’ for a while, it scrapes back and forth against the floor in sexual fashion. Wolfson refers to this as “the assault”, although there’s no apparent victim. When the cube points two fingers at its own ‘head’, at the end of the half-hour cycle, we are presumably expected to take this as remorse. I must stress, the chest and head are purely imaginary, as all we are seeing is a metal box with two agile appendages.

And that’s all folks! If this is the future of sculpture, the medium is in trouble. This mechanical pantomime, broken only by a few thumps and swooshes, may be “extraordinary” to Nick Mitzevich, but I suspect many viewers will find it dull fare.

I thought I was beyond the point of secretly wanting to be shocked by a work of contemporary art but watching Body Sculpture go through its paces I realised I’d been hoping for something a bit more outrageous, more challenging and provocative. By Wolfson’s usual standards this massive work is almost demure.

At first glance it looks as if this imposing pile of factory hardware might turn on the audience in the ultimate AI nightmare, but one soon realises that Body Sculpture is completely self-involved, a victim of its own pre-programmed choreography. Go along by all means, but don’t expect to be thrilled and titillated. There is nothing in this work more shocking than the price we paid for it.


Jordan Wolfson: Body Sculpture

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

9 December 2023 – 28 April 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 December, 2023