An Early Look at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Featuring Jordan Wolfson’s VR Piece “Real Violence”

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By Diane Solway

Given that its role is to capture the zeitgeist, the Whitney Biennial has been called many things—provocative, bewildering, and even polarizing—since its inception in 1932. The lead up to the latest edition, opening March 17, was the first in two decades to coincide with the U.S. presidential election, so expect a tumultuous ride. “Many artists right now are trying to negotiate this tension between preserving a private self and coming together into collective actions,” said the independent curator Mia Locks, who with Christopher Y. Lew, an associate curator at the Whitney, organized this year’s Biennial after visiting artists’ studios, dealers, and curators in some 40 cities. “They’re asking, ‘Who are we as individuals? Who are we as a community?’ and reconsidering fundamental things that we maybe took for granted.”

Perhaps the most unnerving work you’re likely to experience is Jordan Wolfson’s “Real Violence.” Experienced via a VR headset, it depicts the artist savagely beating another man. The project grew out of Wolfson’s interest in removing the possibility of interactivity from an interactive medium, which led him to think about the sense of horror we feel at witnessing violence, whether in real life or via the images that flood us daily. To recreate what that act of witnessing might feel like, the artist built and filmed an animatronic dummy; in post-production he altered the footage using 3-D face-swapping technology—that is the face and hands of a human actor. The goal was to make the immersion as real as possible. Wolfson called the 90-second work a “body sculpture”—it heightens sensation in the viewer’s body and sparks a physical and contextual distortion. When it comes to its abrupt end, “you might want to jump and look behind you and ask, ‘What have I just seen?’” he explained. “But nothing’s there. And then you take off the headset and suddenly you’re in the museum space and everything is different. It’s disorienting.”

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