Speaking to family members, an ex-girlfriend, and a curator who punched him in the face, Spit Earth grapples to understand the creator of ‘the sickest artwork of all time’
Jordan Wolfson has long been dubbed the art world’s enfant terrible. A Google search of his name and the consensus is that he’s one of art’s bad guys. Or you might already know him as the creator of “Female Figure” (2014) – a dirt-covered female robot wearing a blonde wig, white negligee, and monstrous green mask that dances scintillatingly to Lady Gaga’s “Applause” – or “Real Violence” (2017) – a VR artwork in which Wolfson beats a man to death. Both have been denounced but also praised, pushing his name from gallery programmes into the mainstream press with headlines such as “Who likes Jordan Wolfson?” and “‘This is real abuse – not a simulation’”. One news outlet even claims “Real Violence” to be the “sickest artwork of all time”. In March, The New Yorker called him an “edgelord”.
Much of what has been written about Wolfson and his art usually comes with the assumption that he courts the criticisms thrown at him – that his art thrives on it. For his Sadie Coles HQ exhibition in London this year, ARTISTS FRIENDS RACISTS, Dazed looked at how Wolfson has made controversy an art form. Provocation appears to be the lifeforce of his works and Wolfson’s work often attracts criticism of sexism, racism, and homophobia. He readily explores subjects many think he has no right to, meaning his critics are rarely without ammo.
“Nobody ever says, ‘Oh Jordan Wolfson, he’s okay.’ You would never. People are like, ‘Oh, Jordan. I love Jordan.’ Or they’re like, ‘I fucking hate that guy’” – Emma Fernberger
All of the above makes Wolfson the ideal candidate to train a camera on, which is what the just-released documentary, Spit Earth: Who Is Jordan Wolfson? (directed by James Crump and produced by Ronnie Sassoon), does. A 60-minute exploration of Wolfson’s work and his person, we see Wolfson on a business call in his living room, speaking about his childhood in his studio, and with his rescue horses and two dogs at his farmhouse. The film also includes interviews with family members, artworld figures such as Jeffrey Deitch, his ex-girlfriend Emma Fernberger, as well as the art historian and curator Andrianna Campbell-Lafleur who punched him in the face, all paint the sometimes good, but mostly the bad and ugly sides of Wolfson.
Despite his reluctance to acknowledge it, the cast of the film claim that the inner-workings of Wolfson’s psyche unravel through his work. Using his own voice to narrate the unsettling voiceovers for works such as “Colored Sculpture” (2016) and “Animation, masks” (2011) only closes the gap between art and artist even more. While he has denied these connections, by refusing to draw any autobiographical threads, he fans the flames of the age-old debate of whether art can be separate from the artist.
The film makes a case for whether Wolfson is actually a bad guy – footage of American Psycho (2000) make an appearance, as do comparisons to the narcissism of Jeff Koons. It’s also something which the artist wrestles with when he reveals the “genesis of thinking I’m bad” started in a frustrating childhood.
While Spit Earth doesn’t arrive at any solid conclusions to this, instead, the various experiences and opinions shared in the film open even more questions around Wolfson’s character, and, in turn, his work. All this furthers the myth of Wolfson, and, if you’re to believe the press that’s come before this, that’s exactly what he wants.
With the film now streaming on Vimeo, below we glean some of the most fascinating insights offered into Wolfson’s art and character from those who know him best.
The juiciest moments in Spit Earth come when the camera is spent with Wolfson’s family members. His mother, father, and aunt, the latter being the author of Fear Of Flying, Erica Jong, all appear. At one point Jong questions whether Wolfson will ever find serenity. “I suspect he won’t,” she concludes.
Born and raised in New York, Wolfson grew up amongst privilege but reveals that he struggled throughout his early years. “I just had a hard childhood. I don’t think I really understood how to create boundaries or parameters in expressing how I needed to be cared for,” he reflects. “I was very self-conscious. I was very insecure. Very angry. I didn’t like myself. And I grew up in a household where there was a lot of judgment and fear.”
We learn that Wolfson’s mother, Patty, is a psychologist who has been “trying to cure him” his whole life. His learning disabilities, like ADHD, cast a frustrating shadow over his youth, and it seems, his adulthood too. Patty explains that Jordan’s differences were apparent when he was just 18 months old. She notes that most kids never outgrow learning disabilities, they just learn to live with them, often taking advantage of the creativity that comes with it but also struggling because they see things differently to the ways most other people do.
“I can’t make work unless I surrender to this fear” – Jordan Wolfson
In one of the final scenes of the film, Wolfson speaks about one of the earliest stickers he ever made. The sentence “Describing how a dog was slaughtered” sits above a red rose. Wolfson, who has two dogs, acknowledges its sadist undertones but explains it’s instead about compassion and empathy. “This idea of describing how a dog was slaughtered, it’s like describing how one destroys empathy. Or how one corrupts compassion,” he says. “For me, that’s the gestalt of this sticker. That it’s really about the threshold of compassion.” It’s an illuminating insight which leaves the door ajar for a different perspective of the artist – of someone who is misunderstood rather than deliberately provocative.
While we never really learn why Wolfson gets into art, we do know that his parents discouraged it, and still, to a certain degree, do.
Their discomfort is most apparent when speaking of “Animation, masks” (2011) – an unnerving 12-minute animated caricature of a Jewish man, narrated by Wolfson, who traverses topics of race, violence, and sex, as he moves his hand, his fingers shaped like a gun, between aiming at his temple and the assumed viewer. “My father was like, ‘Just don’t put a yarmulke on him and then maybe people won’t think he’s Jewish’. I was like, ‘You’re so full of fear’,” recalls Wolfson, who makes several references to this “fear” throughout the film. He adds: “I can’t make work unless I surrender to this fear.” Cutting to his father, Milt reveals he found it offensive and told his son not to do it.
THE ART WORLD
Dismissing the controversy surrounding his work as the result of his want to follow any ideas he has with full freedom, Wolfson says: “All this virtue-signalling and politically correct stuff... I just wanted to see culture. I want to see the world and I want it to be uncensored, and I want to be free to comment on it and know that the gallery space is a safe space to express ideas. (There’s) so much fear. But I always thought that transgression led to transformation.”
Later on in the film, Wolfson continues this train of thought: “I just have this idea and I catch it and I hold it... I’m not gonna criticise my idea because that will pollute it. I don’t look at it and be like ‘I can’t do that because if I do that someone is gonna think I’m bad. I’m not gonna do that because something thinks I don’t care about that. I’m not gonna do because someone thinks I have the wrong politics or I’m sexist or I’m racist or I’m homophobic.’ There’s so much fear.”
Gallerist Jeffrey Deitch speaks of the same fear which Wolfson says he refuses to let shackle him, explaining: “I think it’s very special that artists have this unique position. I don’t think that artists exploit it enough. So many of them are playing the game correctly.”
The game refers to the art world at large, which Wolfson himself critiques. “I remember someone saying to me, ‘Jordan, you should know, the art world polices itself.’ It’s so sad, this art world we’re in. It’s so conservative. I find the art world very conservative. I wouldn’t say I’m at war with them. I’m just not subscribing to them.”
The tension between what Wolfson claims the intentions behind the work are and what the art world at large suspects have long been at odds. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows if he puts it out there he might get that kind of reaction,” says curator and historian Andrianna Campbell-Lafleur, who admits to punching Wolfson once when he made a pass at her. “I just see it as unnecessary,” adds artist Kenny Schachter speaking about “Real Violence”. He then argues that there are enough examples, both historic and contemporary, which depict brutality both against and from Jewish people.
“This is like a short YouTube movie that someone posts before he goes on a shooting rampage. It’s scary. He’s a psycho. He’s a monster” – Stefan Kalmár
Having faced questions over the use of violence in his works, Wolfson retorts that he’s drawing from experience rather than exploiting others. “When I made ‘Real Violence’, I was in a safe space because my intent was not to hurt or abuse the viewer, my intention was to share a witnessing scenario.” He speaks about observing violence in the streets, his own encounters with it, and ISIS beheading videos on the internet. “I wanted to look at this material not because in any way am I stimulated by violence but because this was in the world and I wanted to see it.”
Schacter recalls seeing Wolfson questioned by an upset audience member, who condemns his use of violence as lazy, at a talk he was doing with Aria Dean at New York’s New Museum in 2017. “People get fairly angry at him. What’s amazing is you’d think that normally a person would squirm in their seat... he was being criticised to the point where it was just shy of tomatoes being thrown at him.” he recounts. “If it was me, I’d be sweating profusely, I’d literally be trying to appease people. He doesn’t squirm... He sits on that stage like he just couldn’t give a rat’s ass.”
It’s Stefan Kalmár, director of London’s ICA, however, whose opinions of Wolfson are most scathing. “He’s such a monster,” he says, comparing “Female Figure” to a scene in A Clockwork Orange. “He once showed me a little film that he made to raise money for the animatronics’... this is like a short YouTube movie that someone posts before he goes on a shooting rampage. It’s scary. He’s a psycho. He’s a monster.” However, by the end of the film, Kalmár seems to u-turn, laughing: “He’s an asshole – but a nice one.”
Nobody in the film expresses the tug-o-war between “good Jordan” and “bad Jordan” more than gallery director Emma Fernberger, who is also Wolfson’s ex-girlfriend. “Nobody ever says, ‘Oh Jordan Wolfson, he’s okay.’ You would never,” she says. “People are like, ‘Oh, Jordan. I love Jordan.’ Or they’re like, ‘I fucking hate that guy.’ There’s really nothing in between.” Fernberger is more forgiving, however. “I think people really got hung up on him being this unlikable person or bad in some way and I think he’s actually a lot more sympathetic character. He’s just like a lost character.”
It’s in Fernberger’s interviews that the links between the artist and the work begin to form in deeper, more personal ways. ”If you know him intimately and then you look at his work, it’s all there,” she explains. “All of the psychosis, all of the fear and insecurity, it’s all in his work.”
Speaking about “Colored Sculpture”, Fernberger says that while Wolfson initially denied it being about her, at the opening of the show he admitted, whispering in her ear, “It was about you.” The artwork features a red-headed boy with animated eyes which is flung around the room, held by chains and eerily resembling a lynching. Percy Sledge’s rendition of “When A Man Loves A Woman” plays, and at one point, the sculpture halts its movement as Wolfson’s voice recites a series of sentences which range from tender to horrifically violent: “Two to kill you. Three to hold you. Four to bleed you. Five to touch you. Six to move you. Seven to ice you. Eight to put my teeth in you. Nine to put my hand on you” – he counts to 18. “(He’s like) throw the match and you sort of see what happens,” remarks Fernberger. “And then walk away.”
“Throw the match and you sort of see what happens. And then walk away” – Emma Fernberger
Wolfson ponders his own behaviour while sat in his studio. “I think my worst fear was that I would do something or be found out for something and people would know that I really was bad.” Although he offers nothing more to this sentiment.
“He wants to curtail this idea that anything is autobiographical but that’s him,” concludes Fernberger. “He, in ‘Riverboat Song’ (2017-18), is speaking his own words, and they’re an expression of his thoughts, and he can say otherwise and I would say he’s a liar.” She laughs. “The boy pissing in his own mouth, I always thought of that as... Jordan wants to revolt people. There’s a part of him that wants to be repellent. He is the little kid running around pissing in his own mouth.”
Spit Earth: Who Is Jordan Wolfson? is available to stream here
This article has been edited from an earlier version